February 21, 2014

Federal Front: An idea whose time has come

Earlier this month, 11 parties met in Delhi for a private chat. Right after the meeting, the voluble and silver-tongued representative of the CPI(M) came out, addressed the media and began spinning a story about the birth of the Third Front. By the evening, two of the 11 parties themselves had debunked this theory and insisted the collective hadgot together for simply coordination in Parliament, not to draw election strategies. Further, within the four-party Left Front, two smaller parties were uncertain.

The following Sunday, February 9, the general secretary of the CPI(M) turned up for a public meeting at Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Grounds and again made a pitch for the so-called Third Front. The next morning, CPI(M) busybodies met the leaders of the Janata Dal (United) and Janata Dal (Secular) for breakfast in Delhi, and again whispered Third Front sweet nothings to journalists.

Soon after, the leader of the Samajwadi Party made a categorical statement that any non-BJP, non-Congress front, whether Third Front or otherwise, would only emerge after the elections. There was no question of a pre-poll alliance. The Communist balloon had well and truly been tricked. Within hours, the voluble and silver-tongued representative of the CPI(M) had to eat crow and agree that the Third Front was at best a post-poll idea.

Frankly the Third Front is not just dead, it was never born. The Federal Front, suggested by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and leader of the Trinamool Congress, is another matter. It has a future and is worth discussing.

What is the Federal Front? Is it the same as the Third Front? Are the differences only semantic, or are they substantial? Mamata Banerjee’s belief has been that the Trinamool government has done a good, pro-development job in West Bengal for close to three years now. People are happy with us; voters have blessed us in election after election and will, we believe, show their support and affection for us in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as well. This will give Trinamool an overwhelming majority of seats from West Bengal.

Like the Trinamool government in West Bengal, there are other regional-party state governments – led by able and performing chief ministers –that will do well in their states and come to Delhi with a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats. These parties have no grand design. They have only the welfare of their states and their people in mind. They believe states and state governments deserve more autonomy and resources to serve their people, and cannot be force-fed ‘one size fits all’ plans from Delhi. Finally, all these parties are opposed to corruption in public life, to dynastic traditions in politics, and to seeking votes in the name of riots and communal identities.

After the Lok Sabha verdict, these parties will form the Federal Front. They will be motivated by just the desire to maximise developmental benefits for those living in their states. The Third Front on the other hand is a hobby horse of the Communists, who want to use the power of regional and smaller parties to manipulate their way to influence without responsibility, and to promote obsolete agendas that have nothing to do with the lives and problems of common people, and certainly not with the aspirations of states.

In sum, the Third Front is a Communist day-dream. As for Mamata Banerjee’s conceptualisation of the Federal Front, it is an idea whose time has come.

Derek O’Brien
MP and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress

February 17, 2014

My response to the finance minister's Vote on Account speech

Was this an interim budget or the death rattle of a dying government? The finance minister spoke of the “Idea of India”. To me it sounded more like the UPA’s Ides of India project.

Don’t go by the exalted title of “interim budget”; this was a vote-on-account, no more. How could indirect taxes such as excise duty on capital goods and consumer non-durables (cars, mobile phones and soaps) be reduced in a vote-on-account? Shouldn’t these decisions have been left to the next government? Couldn’t P. Chidambaram have resisted the temptation to hand out election sops.

While the UPA and the Congress will go to the people claiming credit for their so-called flagship welfare programmes – such as NREGA – the fact is Mr. Chidambaram has ensured the burden for these programmes now passes to state governments. The Centre has deprived states of this chunk of their revenues by transferring spending to them, while freeing funds for the Defence Ministry and Indian Railways. The latter exercise is being window-dressed as reformist and security-oriented spending by the outgoing UPA government. Actually, it has taken place at the expense of the states.

Mr. Chidambaram claims the Food Security Act is providing food for 67 per cent of the population? How is this possible? The UPA government’s official figures say only 22 per cent of Indians live below the poverty line. So 45 per cent of the Food Security Act is devoted to families above the poverty line? Who are these people? Have they been identified? How great is their need for subsidised food? How many can actually afford to pay for it? The inconvenient questions are left for the next government.

Ever a clever camouflage artiste, the finance minister says inflation was reduced to 6.2 per cent in January 2014, forgetting it was 13.6 per cent in December 2013 and 11 per cent through 2013. Yet, he quotes only one month’s figures, and out of context.

He says he’s happy that the current account deficit has been reduced. Is this really an achievement? The current account deficit can be reduced either by growing exports or shrinking imports. In this case reduction happened because manufacturing growth stopped and low domestic demand led to 10 per cent reduction in oil imports and 22 per cent reduction in non-oil imports. If manufacturing picks up – and we hope it does, once the UPA has been sent back to the pavilion – the current account deficit could go up again.

The key issue is: what has the finance minister, and what has the UPA government, done to grow exports? In the end, that is the answer to the current account deficit. It is an answer Mr. Chidambaram has deftly avoided. Instead, he’s happy playing Santa Claus – using the successor government’s credit card.

In four months we hope a better, more enlightened and more honest government will give the country a better, more enlightened and more honest budget. It must adhere to good economics, to development priorities and to principles of operative federalism that treat the states as partners to be nurtured, not adversaries to be cheated.

By then Mr. Chidambaram will be a former minister and former MP, probably busy practising in the Supreme Court. I hope he finds time to turn on his television and watch the real budget speech.

Derek O’Brien
MP and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress

February 13, 2014

Is this how Parliament deserves to be treated?

It was a few minutes after noon. There was commotion in the Rajya Sabha and I had walked across to the last row of Central Hall (the hall which both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members share during a break), where the Trinamool MPs customarily sit. We were chatting when there was a hullabaloo. A Lok Sabha MP rushed out, rubbing his eyes and shouting, “Spray, spray… it’s gas…” I couldn’t stop him to ask questions but soon there was another MP, and then a third and then a whole rush. It was crazy. I hadn’t seen such a scene in my 32 months in Parliament.

Finally I spotted my party colleague Sudip Bandyopadhyay and asked him what the matter was. He told me a Congress MP had sprayed something in the Lok Sabha and sent everyone into panic. A few minutes later I met another party colleague, Saugata Roy, who had a coughing fit due to the spray.

It was completely unprecedented, senior members exclaimed, and had all happened as the government tried to introduce the Telangana Bill in the House. About 15 minutes later, I had coffee with my friend Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress, in Central Hall. “Did they actually introduce the Bill?” Jagan asked me. “They are claiming they did,” I said. He shook his head: “It’s madness. How could they introduce it?… It’s like the Nazis… ”

Don’t take that last comparison literally. Jagan was merely expressing his frustration – and the frustration of so many of us in the Opposition – at the Congress’ bloody-minded conduct and supreme stubbornness. This is the final session of Parliament before the general election. There is no time or political capital for the government to attempt dramatic legislation. A lame-duck regime doesn’t have the credibility to do so.

At the all-party meeting before the session, the Trinamool Congress had urged Parliament pass the Railway Budget and the Vote-on-Account and then conclude business. After that let matters move to the people, we had said.

The Congress had other plans. The Telangana Bill wasn’t listed for today. It was there in the Supplementary List, distributed at 2.00 pm. However, two hours before that, at noon, the Bill was surreptitiously introduced amid a din and a protest and a civil war between what I call the Congress (T) and the Congress (S): the Congress (Telangana) and the Congress (Seemandhra).

The Congress leadership was prepared. Muscular party MPs – including Raj Babbar and Mohammad Azharuddin – were positioned to guard the Speaker’s podium and prevent Bill papers from being snatched. They had formed a protective barrier. Is this how legislation is introduced? Is this how a state should be divided? Is this how Parliament deserves to be treated?

We can keep asking the questions. The Congress will never bother to answer. It believes in that old adage: Never apologise, never explain. Sombre thought on a sombre day.

Derek O’Brien
MP and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress