May 19, 2006

Arjun Singh's Quota of Woes

see previous article

Quota Raj shall prevail

It is sad that in the largest “democracy” in the world, the Government of the country has to resort to playing games in order to deal with those who protest in a democratic manner against its backward looking approaches to resolving serious social issues.

As the legitimate protests against the Government’s proposed policy for special quotas for OBC get more intense, ministers in the Government and the politicians supporting such quotas for their own political ends are using all manner of tricks, subterfuge and other means, to divide, weaken and ultimately crush dissent.

In the last couple of days, the Government has been going through the motions of a mock “dialogue” with the protesting students and resident doctors but it is clear to everyone with a minimum of intellect that the sole purpose of such talks is to somehow see that the protests are subdued and stopped.

The actors in this drama being played by the Government and the political parties are many, but the pride of place at this point of time must surely be given to Arjun Singh.

He has played a pivotal role in the present controversy reaching such serious proportions and the manner in which he has acted ever since early April deserves to be recalled to appreciate the mischief and damage he has managed to do.

On the 5th of April, he let it be known that the Govt. would be announcing its decision on quotas for OBC after the elections as the same could not be announced while the elections were going to take place. Whether he actually said those words and the precise grammatical meaning of what he said is a matter of quibbling, which he has already done with the Election Commission after the latter called for an explanation. But to all those who read the news reports, he was not talking of an intention of his party or the Government but of an impending announcement of a decision. He was effectively making an unofficial announcement and saying that the formality would be completed after the election due to technicalities. That was what was understood. What he said was clearly an attempt to influence the voters (even though a little late in the day). Whether he said this at the behest of his boss or, for some reason of its own, is unclear.

In fact, before Singh spoke, the HRM Draft Bill was already sent back by the Cabinet Secretary in view of the forthcoming elections. This then, was the starting point of the mischief.

Then, when the students started agitations and wanted to meet him, he did not meet them. When he did meet, he took cover under E.C. directive and also talked of speaking to the Prime Minister.

All along in this series of events, he has maintained that the government was duty bound by the Constitution to introduce the quota. This was clearly a deliberate falsehood to mislead not only the agitating students but also the whole country. The Constitutional amendment is only an enabling amendment consequent upon the Supreme Court decision in P.A.Inamdar & Ors. v. State of Maharashtra & Ors., delivered on 12th August 2005. (
see here ). In fact, it is the Supreme Court which has suggested the Union or the State Governments to come out with ‘a detailed well thought out legislation’.

The 93rd Amendment merely states that the Government can make “any special provisions by law for the advancement of socially or economically backward classes” or SC/ST as regards admissions to educational institutions. (see the actual Act). It DOES NOT say that government must make such special provisions nor does it prescribe any time limit. “Special provisions” do not mean only reservations and quotas, except in the mind of a non-thinking Government with no vision. Furthermore, it is clear that in spite of the 93rd Amendment allowing the Govt. to make special provisions, any law that may be made will still be subject to judicial scrutiny in future.

A Union Minister who would complete 50 years of political life next year cannot be so ignorant as to say that government is mandated by the Constitution to introduce the quotas. The conclusion is clear that what is being said by him is to mislead. He actually said in a statement once again on the 18th May, knowing full well that it was not a correct representation :

"the Central Government is aware of all views expressed in this regard and shall take an appropriate decision on this issue without in anyway diluting the commitment arising out of the Constitutional Amendment in Article 15 (5)."

Not satisfied, he used the same point while launching a totally unwarranted and undignified attack on the National Knowledge Commission. With due respect to Arjun Singh’s long political life, it can be said that each of the members of the Knowledge Commission carry a lot of respect and are fully qualified to say what they have said with regard to education. In fact, its Statement on Reservations appears to be a well articulated and at the same time a restrained statement and contains nothing that should anger Arjun Singh, except for the fact that it makes public the views of its members. (
read here). Furthermore, the Commission is very well within its rights to have its say on the subject. Its very first Term of Reference is:

Build excellence in the educational system to meet the knowledge challenges of the 21st century and increase India’s competitive advantage in fields of knowledge.

It is the duty and the responsibility of the Human Resource Ministry to respect and give due weight to the views of this body that has been given the task of building excellence in the educational system of India of the 21st Century – a task for which the older generation is simply not well placed to have a concept let alone a vision. Instead, Arjun Singh made various calumnious comments questioning whether they (NKC) were above the Constitution and even mischievously suggesting that they were wanting to thwart the will of the Parliament, that would depict the NKC in a confrontational role.

This tirade by a Senior Government Minister questioning another empowered body of his own Government was absolutely unseemly and deserves to be dismissed with sheer contempt.

Arjun Singh’s latest statements also deserve to be noted to understand how he is consistently tying himself into knots in trying to do a balancing act. He stated in the Parliament that Government was not working with a closed mind but will fulfil its commitment on quotas. Not having a ‘closed mind’ is completely false. This is evident from the fact that the Draft Bill was ready and already forwarded by him to the Cabinet Secretariat perhaps in the end of March 2006 to be placed in the Cabinet for approval. This in itself is evidence of the Government – not he alone – scurrying surreptitiously in a completely non-transparent and non-democratic way to push through its policy as law without allowing a public debate on such a fundamental and sensitive issue. It shows that the Government had indeed closed its mind.

What is more important and shocking is that contrary to the Supreme Court’s exhortation of bringing out a ‘well thought out legislation', not much thought seems to have gone into the proposal. The manner in which the matter has been finalised is an indication that the Government, in particular the HR Ministry, has not done its home work at all. When such a major decision having far reaching implications for the country is to be taken, it would be expected of the government to prepare and present before the public a strong case with full justification, facts and figures, a review of past approaches, actions and results, the vision for the future, the options available and considered and finally a convincing case for the option that is chosen. NOTHING OF THAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN DONE. The Government seems not to have even bothered to consult beforehand, the Knowledge Commission, whose terms of reference place a focus on education, and whose inputs would be essential and invaluable in the context of the needs of the 21st Century. The only justification the Ministry and Government seem to have, is political need and expedincy as well as the opportunity arising after the Supreme Court judgement. This brings out an almost scandalous state of affairs prevailing in decision making within the government. Truly a sad commentary on a country preparing for the 21st Century.

Further proof of the closed mind of the Government is the fact that what the other auxiliary corps of ministers like Fernandes, Mukherjee, Ramadoss and Chidambaram are trying, is simply to get the students to end their agitation. Every one of the minsters concerned continues with the quota swansong. Palliatives being offered e.g. to increase seats, to ‘consider’ providing more finance etc. are just an eyewash and worth trash, first because they detract from the basic objections to reservations and second because their objective is simply to coax the students to give up. The democratic government of India thinks nothing of even serving sack notices or blowing lathis on demonstrating medicos (although they are expected to brave these for their cause) whose very careers and future are at stake. They are indeed not fighting only for themselves but also for other youngsters who will have to face the same situation in future.

The government in a co-ordinated effort is also out to discredit the media for ‘blowing things out of proportion’ - an exercise of trying to shoot the messenger. At the same time, a section of the media has reported that the government was trying to "mollify upper classes", an invidious hint to put the colours of a casteist approach on the part of the protestors. In fact, the protestors are doing exactly the opposite by wanting to maintain merit-based criteria. There is also innuendo of some political parties working behind the scenes!

Arjun Singh has led an early charge of the brigade without preparations and without a sound plan except one of ramming through, come what may. Now, with the pressures of vote-bank politics and with other political parties who see themselves as saviors of the OBCs breathing down its neck, the Government, it seems, will stop at nothing to push and rush through its quota policy, howsoever ham-handed it may have to become.

May 12, 2006

Retail FDI - Lessons in Misleading the People

Kamal Nath

Let me think.......

The Government and the Minister of Commerce Mr. Kamal Nath in particular, have become quite adept at creating confusion in order to achieve the objective of pushing and justifying a non-existent case for FDI in Retail sector.

After a short lull, the Government has again started floating the premise that the objection to inviting foreign investment in Retail stems from the opposition to big from the small. It is trying to mislead the people by suggesting that the entire argument against foreign direct investment in this sector is confined to the philosophical question of big vs. small. The apparent strategy is that the moment a few large domestic retailers come up, the government could claim that since large retailers are already co-existing with small retailers, there is no harm in having foreign retailers as well who are large.

The arguments against retail FDI are much stronger and fundamental and the main issue is whether FDI in this sector is essential and justified or not. The unequivocal answer to this is: NO. A policy of allowing FDI in this sector can only benefit the global retailers by giving them a permanent footing to earn billions in potentially the largest market in the world in future. This benefit would be available to them virtually free of cost because any investment they make would be only to create their own assets and run their own operations.

The second point which the Government, starting from the Prime Minister, have been at pains to highlight at every available opportunity, is that the country needs $ 150 bn. in FDI in the next few years. This argument is cleverly sought to be linked to suggest that FDI in retail is part of this need. This is just a smokescreen. The country does not need this amount in just any random sector. If the Government has done the home-work to arrive at this magic figure, it must have obviously also worked out the desired sector-wise composition of the $ 150 bn. estimate. Logically, this figure would include only critical areas of high priority like infrastructure and industry and certainly not a no-priority area like Retail where in any case the inflows cannot be large and where, in contrast, there is no worthwhile benefit. On the other hand, there is no shortage of domestic capital for this sector.

In fact, the Government has failed to show a single provable benefit from FDI in Retail sector, as already discussed in another article (see here). On the other hand, most of the arguments and assertions of benefits flowing some time in future (including the supposed big benefits to agricultural sector) that have been floated from time to time, have been comprehensively and admirably dealt with and effectively countered in a longish article elsewhere on the web, specifically as they relate to India (see here). Even the Left parties have demolished the Government's arguments in their discussions with the Government and in public.

The Government has now let it be known that the Commerce Ministry, along with the PMO is working out a proposal to permit FDI in specific branded products like sports goods (read "Nike"?). This very proposal gives the lie to the Government's lofty claims of FDI in Retail sector doing wonders for the country. By no stretch of imagination can it be claimed that allowing FDI in selective segments like sports goods or such other insignifcant area can do any good for the country at all. In even considering such a proposal, the government has practically destroyed its case in the main, for it is obvious that the only real beneficiaries will be the retailers that set up base under this proposed policy. In any case, such brand segments can very well make do with the franchise option available to them at present.

The conclusion is unavoidable that the Government's intentions do not indicate any public interest being served. Private interests, perhaps? Who knows.

What about the assurances to Wal-mart and others then, that they would be allowed? Hmmmm.... May be the Commerce Minister and the PMO still have something up their sleeves to spring a last minute surprise.