“This govt is eradicating the poor, not poverty.”

Surendra Mohan on Sonia Gandhi and the UPA’s "socialist" agenda

ajay

Ajay Singh | May 8, 2010


Veteran socialist Surendra Mohan
Veteran socialist Surendra Mohan

Surendra Mohan is perhaps is the only surviving socialist who can claim to have closely worked with Ram Manohar Lohia, imbibed and understood his leader’s anti-Congressism credo and its context. In a free-wheeling interview with Ajay Singh at his east Delhi home on a Sunday evening, he talks about Sonia Gandhi and the UPA’s “socialist and egalitarian” agenda.

A slew of measures initiated by the UPA government are aimed at fighting poverty, illiteracy and hunger. Do you feel that Sonia Gandhi has been implementing what socialists have been crying all along but forgot when in government?

Let me explain as to what our agenda is with regard to the common people. Right from the beginning we have been demanding that the right to work be included as a fundamental right. The obvious implication of this step would have ensured food for each family. But what we have got as the minimum employment guarantee scheme is much too small. In the family of four persons, one person is entitled to 100-day work out of 365 days in a year. This implicitly means a family is guaranteed only 100-day employment. This is not socialism by any stretch of imagination.

But how would you describe the UPA’s decision to bring in the right to education and right to food—the two pieces of legislation that are being cited as Sonia Gandhi’s commitment to fighting poverty, hunger and illiteracy?

On the face of it, these two pieces of legislation are touted as major achievements of the government. But what is the reality? If you take the case of the right to education act, it would appear that the government is hell-bent on segregating the society into various groups. We have been demanding a common school system in which children from all sections of society could go to the school. You know, we have two school systems—the first represented by the public schools meant for the affluent and the second as government schools meant for the poor and marginalised sections. Now with the effect of this right to education bill, we are going to create yet another, third, system of school which will cater to those children who are legally mandated to impart education but their parents have no resources. What kind of education will such schools impart?

Then you take the right to food. In fact, this act would have become irrelevant if the government would have given employment as “fundamental right”. Similarly if the public distribution system is improved, no right to food act is required. Let me tell you that this government is bent upon eradicating the poor not poverty.

Don’t you think it was at Sonia’s initiative that the issues pertaining to poverty, food and price rise have been brought back to the focus? Even the political discourse has shifted away from mandal-mandir to real issues.

I don’t believe this. To my mind, this government lacks serious commitment on these issues. I can give you specific example to prove this point. The budgets of 2007-08 and 2008-09 preceded the meltdown but the finance minister had given direct tax benefits to corporate houses to the tune of Rs 500,000 crore. From where did this money come? This is people’s money lavished on coporates by this very government. On the other hand we are reducing the food quota for the poor. The government is not giving fair and minimum justice to the poor. There is hardly any attempt to contain the food prices which spiraled to a 19 percent inflation.

Why is it that though socialist leaders came to power they failed to bring in any measures for social security? Now this government is at least seen taking initiatives.

What kind of progressive government is this which failed to define the family yet? How is it that they are defining even poverty line vaguely? Various expert committees are giving different yardsticks to measure poverty. The bill on social security for the unorganised sector workers is a dead letter and diluted so much that it has lost its teeth. Even if you go by the government records, over 21 lakh people lost jobs in the organised sector. Are they doing anything about it? The government which cannot contain inflation should not talk about eradicating poverty.

But why did socialists fail when they came to power in 1977 and 1989?

In 1977 there was no price rise. In fact we had contained the prices during the Janata Party regime. To be specific, three socialist leaders—Madhu Dandwate, Raj Narain and George Fernandes—were in the Morarji Desai cabinet. Madhu Dandwate in his role as the railway minister eliminated the distinction of third class in the railways and provided cushion to ordinary passengers. Raj Narain, the much misunderstood leader in those days, tried to introduce conventional and traditional medical practitioners to villages. Similarly George Fernandes as industry minister was credited with setting up district industry centres for the single-window clearance system. This was our commitment to people’s cause. The same holds true in VP Singh’s term as the price rise was largely contained. VP Singh’s biggest agenda was implementation of the Mandal commission. In addition, the VP Singh government came close to introducing two constitutional amendments to make employment a fundamental right. But the Ayodhya issue led to the fall of the government. The tragedy with socialists and communists is that they used to harangue the government on the issues related to common man. Now this has collapsed.

Will you not give Sonia Gandhi any credit for the measures initiated to fight poverty, hunger and illiteracy?

She can obviously be given credit for various things. Though the women’s reservation initiative has a long history, Sonia Gandhi certainly pushed it forward. Similarly, she was instrumental in bringing in the RTI. Her NAC consisted of illustrious people like Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy. But why should one appreciate all this when qualitative difference of governance for society is almost negligible? Governance has been as poor now as before.

This interview first appeared in the April 16-30 issue of Governance Now magazine (Vol.01 Issue 6).

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