India’s Gordion knot

One wonders if problem-solving is the goal of Indian politics in general and the UPA in particular, or problem persistence is

Speaking about the failings of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government the other day, a senior official made the pithy observation that in its administration nothing seemed to come to resolution. Things lingered, discussions and debates continued, points and counter-points were raised, the National Advisory Council and the Planning Commission sniped at each other, and somewhere along the line, a state of paralysis became permanent. Gradually, this government’s default position became the Mexican stand-off.

Arguments and contestations are of course welcome within a democratic system and in the chambers of government. However, a politician’s obligation is to resolve such argument, pick one choice over the other(s) and promote a political goal that is best met by making that selection. Too many people in this government, starting with the Prime Minister, have not exercised that authority and not done the job expected of a political leadership. Nothing substantive has ever reached a resolution, irrespective of whether the contending parties are the government and the ruling party, the ruling alliance and the Opposition, or the Union government and the federalist impulses of state governments. The same issues, the same pitfalls have come up again and again.
There is a sense of fatigue and tiredness to not just the government but the broader political environment around it. This jaded, “been there, done that” mood is evident even after the recent Hyderabad terror attack. The home minister makes a template, insipid speech. His party colleagues and opponents react as they have to previous such incidents. One member of Parliament accuses the home minister of “copy pasting” his predecessor’s statement following the Hyderabad terror bombings of 2007.
The former home minister writes to the Prime Minister on lack of urgency towards setting up the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC). Murmurs are heard of how law and order is a state subject and the inherent problems this cause in the building of a seamless, all-India anti-terror mechanism. Gaps in intelligence assessment and sharing are lamented upon. These themes have been around for years. These themes have been particularly salient since 2007-08, when there was a series of bombings across India, culminating in the horrific Mumbai tragedy of November 26, 2008. There is still no resolution.
A non-technocratic home minister, who prefers to see his job as old-style political management and not a mandate with internal security at its core, doesn’t help matters. Fellow politicians describe him as “happy-go-lucky” and “jovial” on public platforms, and — bizarrely — mean these as words of praise. Given this one does wonder if problem-solving is the goal of Indian politics in general and the UPA government in particular, or problem persistence is.
The manner in which the same debates, the same disputes, the same arguments keep coming back is equally apparent outside the realms of so-called hard subjects like security and terrorism. In his recent book Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change, Shankkar Aiyar recounts the beginnings of the Green Revolution in the India of the mid-1960s, and the remarkable role of the then agriculture minister, C. Subramaniam.
“Subramaniam”, Aiyar writes, “drew up his blueprint for the revival of the agricultural sector like he would for a profitable public sector steel plant. He assessed the need for inputs, investment in infrastructure and a pricing policy that would define viability. Subramaniam’s formula factored in the import of seeds, the import of fertilisers, investment in public infrastructure… Most importantly, the blueprint guaranteed remunerative pricing and procurement policies”.
What was the response? “Within the government, finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari shot down the idea of price guarantees… The adoption of price incentives, he said, would result in higher prices and lower savings, hurting the investment plans of industry. The attack by the Planning Commission was led by V.K.R.V. Rao who pointed out that the import of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides would entail a huge outflow of foreign exchange — he labelled the Subramaniam formula as being inflationary and anti-plan.”
There was more: “Outside the government, the Leftists… protested. Their contention was that the whole idea was sponsored by the US-based Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The Communists felt that this would make India increasingly dependent on imports from the US and Western economies. Within the government, TTK (Krishnamachari) rejected proposals from foreign investors willing to set up five large fertiliser factories in collaboration with the Government of India, arguing that this would dent the nation’s quest for self-sufficiency.”
Eventually, Subramaniam, backed by two successive Prime Ministers — Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi — cut the Gordian knot, overrode the technicalities and petty opposition and delivered the Green Revolution. It was what strong-willed politicians were expected to do.
Consider, however, that the ecosystem of roadblocks remains unchanged. The No. 1 political challenge in contemporary India is food inflation. The UPA government has sought to fight it by fiscal measures, by raising interest rates for instance, but has paid astonishingly scant attention to supply-side strengthening and simply increasing food, especially milk and cereal, productivity. Old shibboleths have reigned supreme. New technologies, including but not limited to
genetically-modified technologies, have been mocked and thwarted. A perfect gridlock has emerged; there is no one to take a big-picture political call as Subramaniam and his Prime Ministers did.
Consider another area: child health. Each time India seeks to introduce a new diagnostic technology, a new vaccine or even a new mechanism and new dosage to administer old vaccines — which is what the pentavalent vaccine, which combines five vaccines, does — there is a familiar uproar. The same voices, the same protesters argue this is a Western and pharmaceutical industry conspiracy to cheat and, perhaps, kill innocent Indians. Then, in a few years, the vaccine or technology is accepted and incorporated into the Indian system — and the protesters go off and find a new cause and a new technology to oppose.
Terrorism, agriculture, public health — these are very different. You can add to them the mess in the mining sector and in energy pricing. In all of these, though, the same issues and debates keep recurring. Unless politicians take a decisive stand, there will be no end to the problem and the polemic. Over the past nine years, the UPA has learnt this to its peril. Alas, so has India.

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