Congress: A party with a conscience

Jun.8 : The President of India addressed a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament in an impressive ceremony that saw the inspiring spectacle of newly-elected members of the Lok Sabha come into Parliament for the first time.The gathering was inspiring in more ways than one the largest number of women ever had been elected to the 15th Lok Sabha, now just crossing 10 per cent of the strength of the House. A large number of young persons and first-time MPs have been elected. The Congress came to power with a decisive mandate from the people of India and the President’s address marked the first step in the determination of the new government to fulfil the promises made to the people of India who reposed their faith in the Congress.

The mandate given by the people to the Congress moves beyond the politics of the past and beckons the India of the future. India has progressed and grown and developed dramatically since the inauguration of liberalisation and of economic reform in 1991, a process the primary architect of which was the then finance minister and now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

When the new policies of 1991 were announced, there was fear and anxiety. Indian society would not be able to cope, we were told, its central axis would go awry. India’s products, its indigenous skills and its very culture would be effaced.

Nothing of the sort has happened. Today, the economies of the West are in the midst of their greatest crisis in 80 years and the Indian economy is relatively uninjured. Its fundamentals, the soundness of its financial structure, the calibrated nature of its deregulation has won appreciation.

The last few years have seen India and Indians grow. New technologies, new markets and new aspirations have galvanised our country.

This mandate is a validation of that process, of those new energies.

It is a signal from the people that they believe in the route Dr Singh, Sonia Gandhi and the Congress had taken and they want the journey to progress at a faster pace.

The government’s intentions, as set out in the President’s address, then represent India’s yearning for change, for a better life and for prosperity, not merely for our children’s generation but for our generation. India has seen and tasted the fruits of the Congress’ inclusive economic development programme and wants those fruits to multiply.

The expectation’s revolution that is sweeping India is both heart-warming and intense. People want change in their lifetimes, perhaps even in the lifetime of a single government. The India economic story has still to deal with some inherent inequities. In five years, we have to narrow that gap, if not eliminate it.

That is the charter the people of India gave the United Progressive Alliance government on May 16, 2009. It was more than an electoral endorsement. It was the drafting of a new social contract.

Rather than self-satisfaction and self-congratulation, the government has responded to the mandate with characteristic sensitivity. It has recognised that there are many Indians and many Indias — and all of them have to be carried together.

The President’s speech is an explication of this resolve. It focuses on economic growth and it promises to invest the surplus generated by economic growth on welfare and the social sector — to bring the have-nots, those denied an education, adequate training in job skills or even basic healthcare, to a level where they can compete with the haves.

It takes intellectual courage and conviction to recognise that an otherwise successful programme of governance has not settled all distortions in society. The Congress has never lacked this courage and essential honesty — not in its best days, not in its worst, not when it was in Opposition, not when in government.

This is a party — and a government — with a conscience. And that conscience has scripted every word in the President’s speech.

It is crucial to understand the equation between economic growth and welfare.

It is equally crucial to see welfare and the social sector not as mere receptacles of public money — but as investments in human capital. The President’s speech emphasises both traditional infrastructure — roads, highways, ports, airports, telecom, power plants — and also "soft infrastructure", namely education and healtcare.

Both these areas are intrinsically linked to the fate and destiny of India’s women. The President’s speech outlines an ambitious agenda in terms of women’s empowerment. It talks of institutionalising female partnership in decision-making in panchayats and municipal bodies, state legislatures and Parliament.

I would like to focus, however, on just one aspect — the promise to convert the National Literacy Mission into the National Mission for Female Literacy. As the speech tells us, the 2001 Census found that 75 per cent of India’s men were literate but only 54 per cent of India’s women were. This is a figure that should shame and embarrass us all.

All our hopes of greater female employment, financial sector inclusion, role in public life and decision-making, participation in legislation and policy framing can flounder and be severely undermined if half our women cannot even read and write. Consider this — a woman who cannot read cannot even decipher a doctor’s prescription for her sick child.

As a mother, I cannot think of a greater curse, as a human being, I cannot think of a greater tragedy. The social consequences of this extend beyond just one individual or one generation.

The government aims to "make every woman literate in the next five years" and suggests this could "become a force multiplier for all our social development programmes". I would go further. Universal female literacy would be as revolutionary a phenomenon as universal franchise was in 1951. It will change our lives, our economy, our society, our attitudes. It will change our beloved India.

"Be the change you want to see in the world", the Mahatma said many years ago. I am glad and proud that the Congress-led UPA government has made that magical mantra its watchword.

Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.

The views expressed in this column are her own.

Jayanthi Natarajan


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