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December 02, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

'The BJP needs to shed its groping and goofing and come down to brass tacks'

And so, finally, those ruddy onions did bring tears to the BJP. Whether the belting which the exorbitant price of the poor man's vegetable gave the party in the assembly poll last week will also have a weeping eczema effect on the Vajpayee-led coalition is uncertain. What is certain is that, from now on, the central government will, in addition to the ceaseless in pricks of the BJP allies, be subjected to Chinese torture of the Congress and its cohorts, the Communists included.

Indeed, it will be a surprise if the current session of the Lok Sabha is able to transact any business meaningful for the nation which will soon have a billion people to feed and clothe on a daily, sustainable basis.

To say that India is headed for a long period of flux and fluidity would be an understatement, especially because even a mid-term poll -- as visualised for early 1999 by some analysts -- is unlikely to yield a truly cohesive and clear-cut majority rule. The situation is truly a massive challenge to the staying power of the BJP.

The task, though, is not impossible if only the BJP sheds its groping and goofing of the last eight months and comes down to brass tacks allied to its nationalist ardour and desired professionalism in image building.

As a starter, it must learn that what the voter -- in the village or in the metro -- wants is an honest, visible effort to meet his essential needs. S/he is hardly moved by the establishment of one task force after another or by the appointment of this committee or that or even by the announcement of super mega projects that will emerge after 10 years.

He is concerned with crop insurance now, not with compensation for damage caused by floods or pesticides.

He is concerned with law and order now, not with the expected report of a newly formed Police Commission.

He is concerned with stoppage of corruption now, not with time-consuming CBI enquiries and unending court hearings with several appeals thereafter to higher courts.

He is concerned with school facilities for his children now, not with the ubiquitous recitation of the Saraswati Vandana in times to come.

He is, in short, concerned with the present and not with promises of the future tense.

Lastly, he is concerned about being informed, fully and truthfully, or what the government's problems are, what it is doing about them, what it is already doing for him and what co-operation it expects from him and his kind -- in the village, in the town, in the metro.

Clearly, what is called for in the future from the BJP -- or from any single or motley band of government -- is a massive PR exercise of a size unknown before, coupled with an objective exercise of power in the best tradition of corporate governance. Ramrajya is the need of the hour, but without the mention of Ram and without the trappings of the raj. There is now no place really for any fanciful ideology -- be it Leftist or Centrist or Rightist, be it Secularism or Hindutva.

The only objectives by which political parties must be guided by should be: 'What good can we do to the people here and now? What can we reasonably expect them to do for the country? What should be done to enable them to guide us, correct us, understand us?'

Long-term plans must continue, no doubt, but they must not become an obsession, and must necessarily be given a subsidiary role to short-term measures. Most important of all, these measures must be most emphatically projected before the people.

Look at the BJP's failures in this regard, especially with regard to the proper projection of the beneficial measures already effected or intended to be effected in their near future.

It will suffice to give examples from two major fields: primary education and personal taxation.

According to an exclusive interview given to a second rate Sangh Parivar journal, Dr Harsh Vardhan, health and school education minister of the just-fallen Delhi government, claimed his government had brought about the following:

1. Schools that had long been conducted in tents under a system operated by a big caucus were converted into 5,000 newly-built rooms.

2. A sum of Rs 30 million were sanctioned for construction of pucca and semi-pucca school buildings in Delhi, supplemented by totally new school buildings, massive improvements in basic infrastructure such as toilets, drinking water and playgrounds.

3. A calendar which enunciated principles of value-based education -- incorporating yoga and health lessons besides promoting sports and Sanskrit-- was distributed to hundreds of thousands of students in Delhi.

This otherwise commendable performance in a key area suffered on two counts.

First, it was never highlighted in the latest assembly election campaign, what with the party's top brass preferring to indulge in Congress bashing.

Secondly, the value-based education programme was named Bharat Vaibhav Anushthanam, thereby exposing, once again, the BJP's almost insane obsession with the complex Sanskrit language which is so difficult on the tongue even for the well-educated urbanite, let alone the villager.

Sanskrit does, of course, need to be promoted, but it is suicidal to propagate it in a hurry for every conceivable nomenclature and generally ram it down the nation throat, especially in the field of education and culture activities.

Also in the field of education was that monumental faux pas over the recitation of the Saraswati Vandana at the state education ministers conference in Delhi towards the end of October. The conference's focal point was to be the presentation of the NGO's novel, rural-based, non-formal education scheme which had reportedly produced conspicuous success since its inception in 1990.

Started by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, this organisation for rural upliftment claims to have established 13,000 non-formal education centres in as many villages and covered 40,000 children. The scheme's essence is its emphasis on a curriculum that induces the ability to handle real-life problems involving basic arithmetic, reading ad writing taught by village-level teachers operating on a one-village one-teacher basis, and costing just Rs 350 per child per year as against the estimated Rs 2,500 per annum in a formal school.

This imaginative scheme is worthy of being extrapolated on the entire rural scene of India as well as in selected pockets of our towns and cities, albeit in a modified manner. However, the Saraswati Vandana fracas prevented its presentation to the state education ministers; what also stymied it was the allegation that the RSS man was to explain the scheme which was his conception.

Here again, the BJP committed two blunders. Firstly, considering the venomous allergy which the so-called secularists have against the RSS, the government should not have inducted the alleged RSS gentleman (a flourishing industrialist incidentally) to make the presentation; some reputed public personality like the BJP's own Arun Shourie should have been assigned the task.

Secondly, the scheme as such should have been talked about, written about and generally brought to the nation's attention well before it was, so to speak, actually set to be sprung on partisan politicians.

The government of India 's HRD minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, ought to have himself spent time on that objective instead of busying himself with delivering high-faulting lectures on various subjects at the United Nations and other prestigious platforms. Now, with his own seat in jeopardy, the intellectual but highly insulated man has thrown away a lifetime opportunity for revolutionizing India's rural education.

Then there's the area of personal taxation. In May, Yashwant Sinha's ministry secured approval to totally exempt from income tax the transport/conveyance allowance of up to Rs 800 a month received from employers; till then, that allowance had been considered as part of the salary which was subject to prevailing tax rates.

Although this decision was of considerable benefit to hundreds of thousands of employees in the public as well as the private sectors, even the official notification on the issue by the Central Board of Direct Taxation was not available with several major public limited companies for months together. Why, the finance minister and his office had not even bothered to air the boon they had given...

A month later, when Sinha's Budget came, he did what his two Congress predecessors had declined to do. He raised the tax floor to Rs 50,000 a year and the annual standard deduction to Rs 25,000 for those earning a salary of up to Rs 100,000 a year. As a result of this bonus, Sinha's tax proposals benefited hundreds of thousands of salary earners by reducing their tax liability in a wide range from 33.33 percent to 100 per cent. Adding the conveyance allowance exemption, this was a virtual bonanza.

It was in keeping with its naivety in PR matters that the Vajpayee government did not even mention this bonanza to the nation, leave alone making a song and dance about it when the Budget was being condemned from all sides. That handsome concession was even forgotten during the recent electioneering when it would have served to buttress the hostility over the inflationary trends which have now cooked the BJP's goose.

All that is of the past. Will Vajpayee & Co learn the lesson at least now? If they don't, a massive goose-cooking plan will unfold on its own in the Congress-cum-Communist kitchen. Sorry, Joshiji, but I don't know the Sanskrit for goose-cooking.

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