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The Left in Eleventh Lok Sabha:
Limits of A Double Role

Just on the eve of the budget session of the Parliament, the central government announces an unprecedented hike in the prices of petroleum products. Twenty women and children belonging to dalit and Muslim landless poor families are hacked to death in broad daylight in a cold-blooded, macabre display of feudal, communal-fascist might in a Bihar village. The government walks away with half the amount of provident fund of the country's working class in the name of covering them with a new pension scheme. A former prime minister and reigning president of the Congress is faced with several criminal charges of corruption in a series of embarrassing scandals. The annual budget of the central government declares a target of public sector disinvestment to the tune of Rs. 5,000 crore.

Under normal circumstances, any of these above-mentioned eventualities would have been provocation enough to trigger a prolonged pandemonium in the Parliament. But the eleventh Lok Sabha clearly has a different chemistry. The government halved the hike in diesel price and it was again business as usual in the Parliament. The Communist Home Minister issued a public statement saying that the government would also reconsider the LPG price-hike drawing only a dismissive denial from Deve Gowda. And that was that. The railway budget received only accolades from the Left, the 5% increase in sleeper class rates beyond 200 kms was defended as being very modest and reasonable. And Chidambaram's maiden budget had the leader of the CPI(M) Parliamentary Party Mr. Somnath Chatterjee all praise for its unprecedented "pro-poor" bias and concern for rural development even as some of his colleagues complained that Chidambaram was violating the "spirit" of the Common Minimum Programme and giving it his own interpretation.

The present session also witnessed the enactment of two pension schemes, one for coal miners and the other for all workers covered by the Provident Fund Act of 1952. Interestingly, the pension scheme for coal mine workers does not infringe on their provident fund and to that extent it satisfies the popular demand for pension as a third benefit, though coal workers resent the fact that the scheme is far from beneficial. The other pension scheme is a totally different proposition, it takes away half the provident fund of a worker in lieu of a monthly pension which is equivalent to only around 8% interest on the provident fund subsumed by the pension scheme. The Narasimha Rao government had first proposed this scheme in February 1993, but it could never get it passed. The Gowda government has done that without any "improvement" in the scheme - it is not linked to consumer price index, pensionable salary is subject to a ceiling of Rs. 5,000 and workers just do not have the right not to opt for the scheme.

What happened to the CPI(M)'s allegedly irreconcilable opposition to the scheme or its clout with the Gowda government? Incidentally, several CPI(M) members including Mr. Somnath Chatterjee were not present in the Lok Sabha when the pension bill was passed with a 67-33 margin!

Another important bill passed in the present session with virtually no opposition has substantially amended the Representation of People Act. The mandatory deposit for candidates has been raised from Rs.250 in Assembly elections to Rs.5,000 (Rs. 2,500 for SC/ST candidates) and from Rs.500 in Lok Sabha elections to Rs. 10,000 (Rs. 5,000 for SC/ST candidates) ostensibly with a view to discouraging non-serious candidates. Raising the number of proposers to say 50 or 100 would obviously have been a more effective and less commercial way of achieving this target. The campaign period has been reduced from 21 to 14 days, patently prompted by the official understanding that "free and fair" polls can only be ensured through greater bureaucratisation and minimum mass participation and politicisation. The notion of equal treatment of all candidates will also take a further beating as the list of candidates will no longer be arranged alphabetically. Candidates belonging to recognised national parties will come first followed sequentially by recognised state parties, unrecognised registered parties and independents.
There is evidently no dearth of issues for an effective Left or democratic opposition inside the Parliament. But the fact is that the two communist parties, long burdened with their traditional baggage of parliamentary cretinism, are now further paralysed by the reigning arrangement of power.


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