What could be the agenda of an Opposition-led government for the country?
As India prepares for the results of another general election and with Congress and the regional parties gaining ground with each phase of the electoral battle, the question of getting into governance for those now in opposition with concrete and common agenda is up for public debate. There should have been such an agenda declared before the elections but instead, major opposition parties chose to announce their individual manifestos.
The only way to combat the Modi-Shah juggernaut and war-chest with huge resources, even if NDA does not get a clear majority, is to quickly close ranks as results keep coming across May 23-24, and put before the nation a combined opposition government on the basis of a Common Minimum Programme (CMP).
The alternative force in India cannot just be of parties but of an alternative world-view, and of an alternative approach to governance, and must take the major opposition party, Congress, the regional and the Left forces together to present a rainbow coalition. What should be the corner-stones of such an alliance?
First, pledge to protect the Indian Constitution and its basic tenets. So, commit to true secularism where the state does not negate any faith but also does not become a party to any faith. Neither Hindutva nor Muslim appeasement, pledge to uphold socialistic welfare economy envisaged in the Constitution because the marginalised people, with their per capita income far below the subsistence level, cannot survive unless supported with minimum access to food, clothing, housing, public health and minimum assured education. So NYAY or a variation of it is a must. Basic Minimum Income in a world with extreme disparity is an essential element of governance, not just a desirable one. A pledge to protect democracy and hence leave media, entertainment, culture and education to be run not by bureaucrats but by professional experts. And, above all, a pledge to protect legislatures by not short-circuiting their sessions or taking the ordinance route to governance, and to protect the independence of the judiciary by not interfering in their recruitment, postings, promotions and processes. Safeguarding democracy also needs to be through police reforms, administrative reforms, judicial reforms, and electoral reforms, and through an all-out implementation of the institution of the Lokpal, apart from protecting the independence of the constitutional positions like those of CBI Director, RBI Director, Election Commission and Chief Information Commissioner.
Second, uphold multi-cultural plurality of India. All communities need to be assured that India is theirs, but they need not be appeased too. The Sachar Committee report shows the lack of socio-economic and educational development among the Muslim minorities and their representation in positions of power and responsibility. The situation is exacerbated today with a visible alienation of them from the political mainstream. Also, if forest rights are not given to the tribal users of minor forest produce as per the forest dwellers' act on minor forest produce, and land rights are not given to the tillers, there cannot be a visible change in the country-side and no end to Naxalism. Then, social assimilation will need distinct ways and means to empower women as well, particularly ensure their security in public places, raise conviction in cases of assault on women, and enhance their socio-economic participation. The British era sedition laws must go, AFSPA implementation has to be need-based, and not geography-based, and very rare. Attempts to dilute Article 370 without taking Kashmiris into confidence need to be thwarted.
Third, economics, and not politics, need to be the focus ahead. United Opposition must promise a slew of economic measures, including viable Minimum Support Price and implementation of MS Swaminathan recommendations for agriculture, gradual recovery of all NPAs (specially in cases of willing defaulters), banking autonomy with SOPs on banking operations insulating them from political interference with RBI independence ensured, recovering black money in land, jewellery and foreign assets, and encourage investments in education and health with tax holidays and other benefits. This plan also shall underline a fair share of funds between Centre and States, respect for economic federalism especially in the provisions of the Finance Commission, and execution of truly one nation one tax system through a uniform GST. Interestingly, it is important to increase investment in education and health up to 20 per cent of the total national budget, which is around half today. Investment in health insurance and not on public health infrastructure does not augur well for the man on the ground. Filling up vacant government positions, and heralding a start-up and SME driven local economies in states are must to tackle the jobs crisis.
Fourth, on the global front, multilateralism is the desired way ahead. The relations with Iran needs to be protected for oil and strategic reasons, with that of Russia to be preserved for military and other cooperation, with the US as well for reasons of NRIs there, and with Europe, there is the need of enhanced engagement. With China, India needs a cautious friendship taking Pakistan into confidence taking advantage of earlier peace gestures from PM Imran Khan. This is not to mean that we need to lower our guard at all. It is possible to have a non-aligned multi-lateral national interest-driven foreign policy, with focus on peace and economic diplomacy, but without letting any lethargy on military preparedness. In fact, the Indian military needs better amenities for the tasks they perform. Even internal security needs a fresh approach, which looks first at the development of economic and human conditions of the people in troubled areas of Jammu & Kashmir, Northeast and the Red Corridor of the nation.
There is a real possibility of a win for United Opposition in the next Lok Sabha polls, only if it puts a Common Minimum Program at the core of its governance, and not repeat the mistakes that Janata Party did in 1977 battling another authoritarian ruler, Indira Gandhi.
But, is the Opposition listening?
(The author is a media academic. Views expressed are strictly personal)