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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

High Voter Turnout, WTO Talks in Perspective

Saturday 7 December 2013, by SC



Polling for the five State Assembly elections being over yesterday, attention has now shifted to the counting of votes on Sunday (December 8). One should not give too much importance to exit polls even though these do provide an idea of electoral trends, that is, which way the wind is blowing. However, there is always a question-mark on their accuracy. But if one is to believe those polls, it is bad news for the Congress which “faces a blank-out in four States”, as The Times of India reports. According to the daily, the “BJP is headed for a clear and comfortable in the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan Assembly elections, is likely to retain Chhattisgarh, and may just squeeze through in Delhi as well, the polls indicate”. Of course, how far these predictions based on those polls come out to be true would become clear in the next 60 hours. [While there is excitement over the results of these four States in large parts of the country, with experts analysing how far the Assembly polls in those States would influence the parliamentary elections in 2014, the elections in Mizoram have not acquired that much significance presumably because the outcome of the polls there would have little impact on the shape of things to come in next year’s Lok Sabha elections despite the fact that it is one of the most prominent States in the North-East.]

One special feature of these polls is the high voter turnout everywhere—71 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 75 per cent in Rajasthan, over 75 per cent in Maoist-infested Chhattisgarh, over 67 per cent in Delhi. This is being partly attributed to the Election Commission’s role in cleaning up the electoral rolls. Yet this cannot be the sole reason for such a development. Some observers hold that voters were drawn to the polling stations because about one-fifth of the electorate comprised first-time voters for whom development or the lack of it happens to be the major issue. Of course, anti-incumbency was also a vital factor especially in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party sought to exploit it to the hilt highlighting the burning problems of corruption and price rise thereby inflicting a blow to the prospects of the ruling Congress. In any case its emergence in the national Capital has shattered the dreams of a two-party system nurtured by some (especially in the BJP). This party has also contributed in large measure in breaking the voters’ apathy that dominated the middle class scene in urban areas in the previous elections. That was reflected in the large queues till quite late at night yesterday. What we thus saw was a celebration of Indian democracy which, with all its weaknesses and shortcomings, is not only alive and kicking but has also been enriched substantially over the years.

Meanwhile India’s adoption of a “hard line” at the WTO ministerial level talks in Bali is being blamed by influential sections of our media for its isolation at the meet. Moreover it is also being underlined that countries like China and Indonesia have been urging New Delhi to show flexibility on the issue of domestic food subsidy or else the WTO’s Doha round would collapse after 17 years of negotiations that failed to yield any positive result. It is in this context that The Indian Express has pointed out that the “breakdown of the Bali meeting will not just be seen as the failure to conclude the Doha round, it will be seen as a damning verdict of multilateralism and the WTO as a whole”, and hence “India should accept a three-to-four year peace clause rather than risk damaging a system that has helped it so much”.

As for the Indian stand, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has articulated it quite clearly. In his opinion, while it was the collective responsibility of all the 159 WTO members to reach an outcome, a balanced result is possible only if the “genuine concerns of all developing nations were addressed”. India is averse to accepting a “peace clause” which protects countries offering subsidies to agriculture from being challenged for a few years, but stipulates that agricultural subsidies should not exceed 10 per cent of production since the Food Security Bill passed by Parliament, despite its limited coverage, guarantees procurement of foodgrains on a scale and at prices that exceed the 10 per cent limit. That is why Sharma has been instructed by New Delhi not to endorse the “negotiations” even if India is “blamed for failure at Bali”. But the question is: would the Government of India stick to its stand in this regard or eventually buckle under pressure from international and national vested interests? And that too when both the US and Europe are known to massively subsidise their agriculture with Washington spending by way of subsides almost half of the GDP emanating from the agricultural sector?

Isn’t it time to expose the blatant hypocrisy of the powerful Western nations on this count? And why should our country sacrifice its sovereign right to decide on its domestic subsidy levels under pressure from external players when the 10 per cent cap on subsidies is itself based on outdated 1986-88 prices without taking into consideration the inflation in subsequent years?

December 5 S.C.

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