By B.G. Verghese
Mamata Bannerjee is a maverick politician, petulant, parochial and populist and was a disaster as Railway minister. Becoming chief minister has not brought greater maturity thus far. Having time and again been an unreliable coalition partner, she has now dared the Congress to walk away from the alliance with her in Bengal, where she does not need the Congress to keep her government afloat. The unspoken corollary is that should the Trinamool reciprocate at the Centre, the Congress will lose the numbers to remain in office. In layman’s terms this is blackmail.
While its state unit fumes, the Congress has decided that discretion is the better part of valour until the February polls when it hopes to do well enough to strengthen its bargaining position at the Centre. One must wait and see if that happens. Meanwhile, the Government cuts a sorry spectacle as it swallows insult after insult and sees its flagship programmes vetoed: Teesta waters, the Lok Pal and Pension Bills, multi-brand FDI, and more.
This has serious implications. Non-functional coalitions may enjoy office but without power. This is surely undesirable by any calculus of national interest. Political drift defies good governance, which is what India needs above all. The best of laws and policies must flounder in the absence of governance for sheer lack of will, which was demonstrated over the civil-nuclear deal and by reopening the peace process with Pakistan, but not since. It is time the Government challenged the Opposition to bring it down, if it can or dares, and face the consequences. Since no other combination appears likely to be able to form a government, a general election might be the only and, certainly, the best recourse. The BJP is confused and divided and its bluff must be called.
The big issue in 2011 was whether the Government had the will to come down heavily on corruption. Too much was invested by too many on a “strong” Lok Pal Bill. A Lok Pal is greatly to be desired but a more diverse set of decentralised and interlocking institutions will probably be more practical and effective, starting at the base where recommended police reforms have yet to be honestly implemented.
Too much naïve quick-fixing seasoned with too much inter-party politics has vitiated debate, with the forthcoming state level polls as the touchstone for all too many. Ultimately, it was the BJP that did most to stall the Lok Pal Bill. It then marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan to seek reconvening of the Rajya Sabha to vote on the Lok Pal Bill. This showmanship contrasts sharply with the Party’s decision to induct into its ranks the dismissed Lodh leader and UP’s former Family Welfare Minister, Babu Singh Khushwaha who is being arraigned for major corrupt practice in execution of the National Rural Health Mission programme that was under his charge.
This sordid farce is still being played out. First denied a BJP ticket in UP after strong objections from within the party, Khushwaha now seeks “suspension” of his party membership until his name is cleared, promising meanwhile to deliver the OBC (read Lodh) vote to his new soul mates who only hate corruption on Mondays and Thursdays.
The BJP is not the only party to practice double standards. Mayawati has dismissed nearly half her former jumbo cabinet on grounds of malfeasance and incompetence. Many of them reportedly won their seats by slender margins and faced the prospect of being swept away by the incumbency factor in the next round. So they were dropped in a bid to portray an image makeover. The Election Commission has ordered all Mayawati’s statues of herself and the party’s elephant symbol, all newly-built at state expense, to be covered until the polls are over.
Greater and more honest federalism has become a new slogan. It is difficult to see how federalism is undermined as made out by the Trinamool Congress and the BJP if Lok Ayuktas are set up by a Central Act under Article 253 in terms of the UN Convention on Corruption. In any event, the Government accepted an amendment vesting the States with the option to frame their own Lok Ayukta Acts if they so desired. So nobody was being coerced. The issue, as in the case of the FDI and Pension Bills, was not federalism. The objection clearly rested on other, self-serving political considerations.
The argument that strong States make for a strong Centre is true as much as a strong Centre makes for strong States. The two are interdependent and complementary. Each needs the other. The States also need to devolve more power to panchayati and municipal bodies, which they are reluctant to do. One needs to rethink the principle of subsidiarity – each level doing what best it can and leaving more complex tasks and coordination for the rungs above.
The further argument that the “people” are supreme is also only true to the extent that “people” speak through their duly elected representatives in the legislature. The alternative would be government by the mob which is as dangerous as kangaroo courts enacting street justice without due process. Protests and demonstrations can and do influence legislators and administrators but cannot substitute legislative and administrative processes.
However, with fresh elections around the corner, electoral corruption must be fought. The Khushwaha case apart, the BJP, like the Congress, BSP, SP and other parties, has once again unabashedly nominated candidates with heinous criminal records in order to pull in caste and communal votes. Politicians discarded by their own parties are being welcomed to enter the rival tent. The Association for Democratic Rights’ National Election Watch has just published a list of criminals fielded by each of the UP parties in which the Congress and BJP figure prominently.
What does this say for political morality and probity? The Akalis have openly denounced the Election Commission for seeking to enforce the Model Code of Conduct. Does not all of this reinforce the need for a constitutional amendment and related legislation to define and regulate political parties in order to bring them under some discipline?
The year just gone by was one when so much could have been accomplished. The opportunity was lost in negativism and recrimination and the pall cast by the global economic slowdown. There is reason to sorrow but none for despair. India remains solid both in terms of its economy and democratic roots. At seven per cent, our rate of economic growth remains well above world average though that is by no means good enough to lift us up and out of poverty, hunger and disease by our own bootstraps. The economy must be got moving again. The Government must not be daunted by carping criticism and negative headlines.
Condoleezza Rice notes in her recently-published memoirs. “Today’s headlines and history’s judgement are seldom the same. If you are too attentive to the former, you will most certainly not do the hard work of securing the latter”. Wise words.