Manmohan hits the ground running

Posted in India | 02-Jul-09 | Author: Santwana Bhattacharya| Source: Asia Times

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

NEW DELHI - A long "second honeymoon" has been scripted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - his government goes into a crucial session of parliament kicking off on July 2 in such a dominating position that the one thing that can conceivably go wrong may be the sheer surplus of comfort.

There's no mistaking the looming crises: the very real constraints on the economy, the task of pursuing growth while simultaneously evolving a functioning welfare state, the traumatic India-Pakistan relations, the trouble spilling over on the streets of Kashmir ... a long roster of problems that are the rightful bequest of any government.

But the contrast between the atmospherics of 2004 and 2009 - the relative freedom of movement available to the United Progressive Alliance government's second avatar - can hardly escape anyone's notice as the system prepares for the passage of finance bills after the ceremonious presentation of the economic survey, the railway and the general budgets, in that order.

One indication of the high level of confidence is the willingness to take on something that, at any other time, would have been a red rag to a bull in parliament: the report on an incident that deeply divided India and impacted its politics for over a decade. The Liberhan Commission - set up to investigate the infamous 1992 demolition of the medieval Babri mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya, believed to be the birthplace of the revered mythic hero Rama - submitted its report to the prime minister on Tuesday.

The report itself was in danger of becoming a myth. It took all of 16 years, 48 extensions, 399 sittings and an equivalent of almost US$2 million to be ready. Manmohan will be tabling the three-volume report, which could prove rather embarrassing for senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including leader of the opposition in parliament, Lal Krishna Advani. For years, both the commission and the government have approached things timidly - mostly with another extension to postpone the trouble - but not this time.

One can only gasp at the change in the political climate. Compared to the dramatic disarray in the opposition camp, the comfort zone Manmohan and his Congress party currently inhabit is enviable. It shows in the tone and content of official pronouncements, the messianic zeal being exhibited by some cabinet ministers, the swashbuckling manner in which they are unveiling radically transformative plans for sundry sectors.

After the Manmohan regime decided it had to give the impression of hitting the ground running on its second coming, it borrowed from the Barack Obama dispensation the idea of setting short-term, capsule-like targets - the whole framework and metaphor and hoopla of 100 days.

In itself, it's not a bad addition to the Indian vocabulary: it invests governments normally seen as lethargic with a sense of purpose, an illusion of speed. Government sexed up, in pursuit of the sheen of private-sector efficiency. In response, Manmohan's ministers have gone into an almost competitive overdrive, each eager to exhibit not just how quick they are on the draw but how straight they can shoot.

Education Minister Kapil Sibal drew first. Foremost on his brief, as was becoming clear in a gathering press campaign, was to consider allowing foreign universities to participate in India's higher education sector - likely to be a stormy issue. Instead of broaching that directly, he let loose a slew of "radical reform" proposals: collapsing all of India's school boards into one unified board, scrapping the traumatic Class X board exam and shifting from marks to grades, junking the existing regulatory and accreditation bodies for university and technical education, going in for the public-private partnership model in primary education ... all of that in 100 days.

New Law Minister Veerappa Moily, meanwhile, gave notice: "The next five years would be an era of judicial and legal reforms." He spoke of measures to radically trim the huge pendency of cases - new civil and criminal courts to fast-track a notoriously sluggish process, to deliver "affordable and accessible justice to the last man in the queue". He promised a systematic attempt to fight the creeping evil of corruption in higher judiciary - making it mandatory for judges to disclose assets, taking a more serious look at an impeachment law that has never ever been used.

Also on the anvil were laws to strengthen witness protection, a less severe attitude to allowing in foreign law firms. In the midst of gay pride rallies in three big cities, he even made a bold promise to reevaluate a law that still criminalizes homosexuality in India.

On Thursday, in a historic judgment, the Delhi High Court went ahead and struck down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalizing homosexuality. This judgment is particularly surprising, given the revisionist thinking that followed the groundbreaking nature of some of such controversial pronouncements.

After Islamic and Christian groups expressed loud reservations, the law minister had to famously renege on his own casually offered pledge to amend Article 377, the law authored during Lord Macaulay's time that makes "unnatural sex" a punishable offence. It was hardly, if ever, used punitively on consensual homosexual activity, but gay rights activists have long wanted the "criminal" tag to go.

The education proposals too are now slowly finding some opposition - primarily on the grounds that a subject that's on the concurrent list (with equal decision-making powers for Delhi and the states) cannot be approached in such a "unilateral and cavalier" manner, without wide-ranging consultations with all the stakeholders. The BJP's M M Joshi, a former education minister, hinted that "in the hurly-burly of 100 days", the UPA was indulging in radicalism for the effect, without no real transformative intent.

Another backward step came early in the UPA's second life: new Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, on the day he took office, said his brief was to ensure that "environmental clearances do not become an obstacle to growth". Realizing from the reaction that this was quite an alarming statement to make, he has since been making elaborate amends - visiting tiger sanctuaries in holiday attire, getting himself photographed atop an elephant at Corbett Park, while saying he only wanted to ensure transparency.

For all the welfarism the UPA boasts of, there is an undeniable "neo-liberal" tinge to it, a clear residue of the Manmohan of old, the man comfortable with the Washington Consensus. A lot had been said about how, unencumbered by the left this time, he can have a free run.

A subtle reaction came to it this week when Congress president Sonia Gandhi decided to reform the National Advisory Council (NAC) - a body of experts, academics and voluntary sector activists that formulated policies "informally" outside the pressures of government. The national rural employment guarantee, the right to information ... these showpiece legislations had first been drafted by the NAC before it got caught in a technical controversy and had to be dissolved. Its rebirth gives notice that the Congress party wants a tighter grip on the reins of policy.

Still, Manmohan is a much freer man now than he was five years earlier. Almost surprised to find itself in the opposition benches, the BJP had taken out all its rage via regular disruptions of even routine parliament proceedings. Manmohan could keep the wounded side at bay only by abjectly surrendering to his domineering ally - the left bloc. The internecine political warfare, with little trust on any side, made parliament look more like a bazaar than a congregation of serious lawmakers.

But in totality, the people appeared to see the BJP and the overbearing left as obstructionist forces, bent on hounding a suave, soft-spoken Manmohan's image as a serious economist, not to the manor born but self-made, a picture of the meritocracy that everyone wanted to see up against a class of egoistic politicians, worked for him. The times were such that Manmohan was seen as someone trying to take governance out of its fire-fighting mode to long-term metamorphic policy initiatives.

Also, the first four years of unprecedented growth that India witnessed during his first tenure, averaging at 9% of the gross domestic product, largely benefited the burgeoning middle class, while the left-inspired welfare policies secured his bottom tier. The smart pre-election move of massive loan wavers to distressed farmers and pay hikes for the salaried class and the armed forces under the Sixth Pay Commission and pro-minority measures imparted a humane and competent look to his government.

The nature of the mandate he got in response has given Manmohan a honeymoon period he missed out on in 2004. In real terms, it translates into a political space he never had in his first stint as prime minister. As the curtain goes up for the first prolonged session of 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House), the government is in a position to push through its agenda. A Congress functionary quite flippantly told this correspondent, "Now, it is a Congress-led coalition, not a government of coalition parties merely headed by Congress. So, the Congress manifesto is the new Common Minimum Program [CMP]." The jibe was about the CMP that the left had literally dictated to the previous UPA government.

In contrast, the chief opposition - the BJP and the left - are in dramatic disarray and trauma. Neither seems to be in a position to put the government to test in parliament. As the Maoist siege in Lalgarh in the left-ruled West Bengal showed, the left, though bitterly estranged, is now dependent on the Congress-led Delhi to bail them out of crisis. Worse still, caught in intense intra-party struggles, both the BJP and the left are busy with themselves, leaving the Congress free to consolidate its position politically.

It is worrisome for any democracy to have an opposition in self-destruct mode. After losing out on power for two consecutive terms, the BJP does not seem very far from such a path. Take the ridiculous spectacle of a temporary leader of the opposition, and the game of musical chairs that was on for the seat next to him when parliament met briefly the last time - different leaders jockeyed to sit next to Advani on each day, to signal their relative seniority.

The octogenarian Advani, no more in a position to realize his dream of becoming prime minister, wants to take a final bow from the political arena. That he has to make way for the next generation has also been made clear by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP's parent body that controls and regulates it. But the mutual sniping in the next tier of leadership is so intense that Advani has to babysit the BJP in parliament for at least six months, till they can settle on someone who can, by consensus, play this crucial constitutional role.

Not that it stopped the murky public spectacle of BJP leaders - former cabinet ministers like Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley or party chief Rajnath Singh - slugging it out in the open. The skirmishes went on at press conferences, through signed articles in the press and via sarcastic and dissenting letters to the party leadership that curiously always found their way to the public eye.

Adding to the decibels were ideologues like Sudheendhra Kulkarni on the one hand and old dissenter Govindacharya on the other, who has come back from anonymity to let loose his voluminous critiques on the party leadership. Or even party sympathizer-cum-journalist Swapan Dasgupta. They are all writing reams about who and what exactly should be blamed for the party's poll debacle.

In a detailed article, Kulkarni blamed the party's anti-Muslim image: "The BJP snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, while the Congress managed the opposite feat." Even now, the party is not willing to look at policy issues that could have led to their defeat.

While Jaswant Singh, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha blamed Jaitley, the party's election strategist, Jaitley passed the buck on to the likes of Kulkarni and other "Advani cronies" who advised him to mount a presidential-style election targeting Manmohan. Indira Gandhi's other grandson, Varun Gandhi, who is in the BJP and gave unbelievable hate speeches against Muslims in his constituency, is also being blamed by one and all. Perhaps, his speech is the only issue on which there is unanimity in the BJP.

Things came to such a pass that a slew of leaders openly challenged Advani's decision to name Jaitley as leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, as an attempt to "reward failure". In the process, a crucial constitutional position has been undermined in a house where the ruling coalition does not have a clear majority and the BJP could actually have mounted a healthy vigil. Now every time Jaitley (by all standards a fine speaker in parliament) gets up to challenge the Treasury benches, the latter can take it easy knowing that he has no support within his own party.

The Lok Sabha is no better. Senior BJP leaders like M M Joshi and Jaswant Singh do not like it one bit that Advani has named younger Sushma Swaraj his deputy - for this virtually means she has been named his successor in parliament.

The situation in the left is no better. The biggest of them, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), in its post-poll analysis report, has admitted that certain sections of the party leadership had "lost touch with the people" thanks to their "corrupt lifestyle" that do not suit communist leaders in India.

The party boss, general secretary Prakash Karat, has just about fobbed off a challenge to his leadership, and only because everyone else too is in trouble and the status quo is the least risky path. But his own political misjudgments, pulling out of the UPA on the nuclear deal issue and then chasing a Third Front chimera during the polls, are being debated within party circles, even if in whispers, and will surely come to haunt him at a later time.

The shambolic state in which these two poles of India's politics - the BJP on the right, the CPI(M) on the left - find themselves will surely be temporary. Both are cadre-based political organizations with a relatively democratic party structure - unlike the pyramidal Congress party with a ruling family on top - and will find ways to manage their rivaling impulses. And though both were hit especially hard by the electoral loss and are coping badly with the repercussions, with varying degrees of dissension, it is the future trajectory of the Manmohan administration that will likely supply them with oxygen.

Santwana Bhattacharya is a New Delhi-based journalist who writes on politics, parliament and elections. She is currently working on a book on electoral reforms and the emergence of regional parties in India.