A house of mirrors

Opposition’s robust response to these innocuous changes has willy-nilly brought reforms to the political centre-stage

An unintended consequence of the disruption of the first quarter of the Winter Session of Parliament over the decision to allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retailing is the growing support among the middle classes for a presidential system of government. The monotonously routine scenes of disruption and adjournments appear to have bred a mood of disgust about the efficacy, not of democracy but of democratic institutions. With India clamouring for both purposeful governance and accountability, it is becoming increasingly clear that India’s MPs lack the wherewithal to uphold lofty ideals.

The Opposition has to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame. When proclaiming that Parliament would not function unless the government rescinded its executive order on retail trade reforms, the BJP was too engrossed in the momentum of the battle it has undertaken to worry too much about the public response to the disruption. Like trade unionists unmindful of how a strike is perceived in society, the Opposition was too gleeful about the likelihood of the government being seriously embarrassed to worry too much about how the country as a whole perceived the shenanigans in Parliament. The pitfalls of catering to a single interest group were not seriously deliberated before rushing into action.
For its entire life, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the BJP, was handicapped by a perception that it was a Brahmin-Bania coalition, catering to the narrow interests of beleaguered elites and the trading classes. In the past decade this perception has eroded, not least because any party requires a much bigger social base to emerge as a mass party. By sticking up so ferociously for a trading class that perceives a long-term threat to its dominance, the BJP has reinforced stereotypes of itself. Most important, it has left the field wide open for the Congress to show its concerns for the two groups that have been ignored in this debate: farmers and consumers. Of course, given its present state of disarray, it is unlikely the Congress will be able to exploit these openings.
It is not that the UPA government comes out of the episode like an innocent victim of the Opposition’s cussedness. Far from it. There is an element of mystery as to why the government timed its announcement to coincide with the Winter Session of Parliament, unless it really believed that the move would be widely welcomed and leave its parliamentary majority unaffected. However, having rushed in with the notification, the government could hardly expect that the Opposition would not capitalise on the fact that there is near-complete unity in its own ranks and division among the coalition partners of the government.
Even if no one questions the legal right of the Cabinet to issue a notification amending the rules of the retail trade, no one also questions the right of Parliament to discuss the subject and, if necessary, vote on the subject.
The frequency with which the government is shying away from debates that involve voting — whether on price rise or the retail reforms — has brought into question its commitment to the institutions of democracy. Governance in a democracy doesn’t merely involve taking the right decisions; it necessitates blending decisions with the will of Parliament.
True, any successful adjournment motion against the recent retail trade reforms doesn’t imply a vote of no-confidence in the government. The Trinamul Congress and the DMK may well either vote with the Opposition against the reforms or stage an expedient walkout. However, it is unlikely they will vote to topple the UPA government and force an early general election, as many in the BJP seem to desire. Yet, any expression of parliamentary displeasure against the retail reforms will seriously embarrass the government, erode the standing of the Prime Minister and, maybe, even force his resignation.
If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was unaware of the larger implications of an inevitable parliamentary scrutiny of his decision, he was displaying amazing political naiveté.
Yet, astonishing as it may seem from the eye of the storm, it is conceivable that both the decision and the timing were carefully pre-meditated. For the past 18 months or so, Dr Singh has allowed himself to look indecisive and pathetic. The Prime Minister has particularly disappointed all those who believed that the 2009 victory would open the floodgates of radical reform, thereby allowing India to live up to its potential. The retail reforms are the only meaningful steps the government has undertaken since it assumed office in June 2004. The Opposition’s robust response to these innocuous changes that present India with, at best, a post-dated cheque has willy-nilly brought reforms (rather, the lack of them) into the political centre-stage. Most important, it has taken the focus away from Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal obsession.
Was this carefully calculated by a Prime Minister who some say is a better politician than an economist? Unless the Congress has made up its mind to jettison Dr Singh for the Crown Prince or a stop-gap arrangement, it is likely that the party has to unite behind its Prime Minister. If
Dr Singh shows determination in that fight, the message to the electorate will be largely positive — people love a doughty politician. As a bonus, he has already succeeded in winning over a hitherto critical media to his side.
All that the Prime Minister has to do is to be seen to be fighting to satisfy India’s blind craving for decisiveness.

The writer is a senior journalist

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