Wishes & horses

As India begins its journey into 2012, its wish list for the coming 12 months must comprise just one, compelling word: governance

When one makes a wish list on January 1, at the start of a new year and a clean page, one also mentally draws a road map to achieve goals on that list. As India begins its journey into 2012, after a twisted and tortured 2011, its wish list for the coming 12 months must comprise just one, compelling word: governance. It needs governance, desperately. It needs leadership, political acumen, policy clarity, an administration that takes charge, a Prime Minister who does not look like he’s sleepwalking and a Cabinet that is not forever pointing fingers.

Paralysis and defeatism gripped the UPA government in 2011. This slowed the economy, talked down the national mood and left India feeling morose and low. To the post-liberalisation generation — the millions of Indians born after 1991 — it represented an unprecedented situation. Not having lived through the droughts of the 1960s and the economic free-fall of the 1970s, they have never known such an India. The governance deficit was the difference between an India going swimmingly and an India that suddenly seemed to be gasping to stay afloat in turbulent waters.
Can 2012 bridge this governance gap? The answer is cautiously optimistic, or, perhaps, cautiously pessimistic. The caution becomes obvious as one considers the expected landmark events of the year, and assesses, chronologically, what is feasible and what is not.
The first two months of 2012 — January and February — can more or less be written off. Recovering from the Lokpal Bill fiasco, waiting for the elections in Uttar Pradesh and four other states, the UPA government will be in its now-familiar freeze mode. Corporate India has already factored in a bleak final quarter (January-March) for 2011-12, to cap the bad news in the final months of 2011. It is unlikely the Manmohan Singh government will be able to do anything — as much due to its lack of confidence as to the Election Commission’s code of conduct in a pre-election period — to remedy this. Fresh reforms and policy initiatives are about impossible.
What may happen next? This is where the India of 2012 could encounter one of several forks in the road, leading to alternative possible scenarios. On March 4, the election results will be out. Presuming the Congress does well, wins Punjab, picks up Uttarakhand from the BJP and comes up with a robust presence — and a role in government formation — in Uttar Pradesh as well, the verdict could serve as a tonic for the party.
This could have an impact on the Budget speech that is now due in the first fortnight of March. It could have the Prime Minister pushing once more for foreign direct investment enhancement in multi-brand retail and civil aviation too, perhaps, forcing these decisions past a weakened Opposition.
That aside, it is possible that the bad news on the economy would have peaked. In December 2011, the Reserve Bank halted the interest rate surge of the past two years. By March or thereabouts, interest rates may begin to come down. This will reverse some of the negative mood in business, albeit gradually.
All of this may not mean much for the real economy in the short run, but could nevertheless boost sentiment. A stronger electoral finish by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh could suggest political stability and seriously change the headlines. Urgency could return to governance.
Of course, this is a bit of a fairy-tale framework. What if reality decides to turn coarse and cynical? Even if the Congress does well in the state elections and recovers ground in Lucknow, it may not trigger a prioritisation of governance in New Delhi. Convinced Mr Gandhi is its ticket to the future, the Congress may have even less of an interest in making Dr Singh look good, boosting his prime ministry, allowing him space for his chosen policy
measures and enabling him to deliver quality governance.
Paradoxically, a good performance by the Congress in Uttar Pradesh could end up bringing grim news for the UPA government. The principal party would then just lose interest in the coalition structure. Factionalism within the Congress, which had such an impact on governance in 2011, could renew itself with greater ferocity.
Further, what if the economy has not bottomed out? What if the bad news continues into the first quarter of 2012-13? What if, on top of that, the Congress’ electoral achievement in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere is below its expectations?
That would only intensify the governance deficit. The UPA government’s morale and moorings would be weakened even beyond levels seen in 2011. Somehow the arrangement will hang around till July, when the next President is elected, and August, when the next Vice-President is.
The President is chosen by an electoral college comprising MPs and state legislators, each with a weighted vote given the electorate in his or her state. These numbers could change dramatically after the quintet of state elections. If the Congress does not emerge muscular and gung-ho on March 4, hard negotiations and bargaining between it, other UPA parties, the NDA Opposition and fence-sitting regional players will begin on the selection of the President and Vice-President. This all-consuming political theatre will have one obvious casualty: governance.
As such, if the gods are unkind — to the Congress, if not to India — the UPA government could spend the first eight months of 2012 lurching from crisis to crisis, being blackmailed by allies, scrambling to put together a parliamentary majority for a motion here and a bill there. At the end of it all, it could have a President of its choice — or at least a Vice-President — but will be too exhausted to do anything else.
For governance, India will have to look to a wholly new process in the period after August, and to a midterm Lok Sabha election. Where would this leave India’s quest for governance? High on the wish list for 2013!
Happy New Year — may 2012 be better than preceding paragraphs suggest.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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