Backward march

March.19 : One after the other, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance-2 (UPA) has taken steps backward on the two issues crucial to its government — the Women’s Reservation Bill and the civil nuclear liability limitation bill. And on many others that it promised it is said to have a rethink. This could mean only two things: the government’s claimed honeymoon with the people is turning bitter and, secondly, it has failed in its floor management.

The Congress Party’s defence is ingenious. It says that the UPA’s top priority is to get the finance bill passed before April 30, 2010 while other matters can wait. If the government wants to avoid getting into controversies just to save its skin, any failure with the finance bill would amount to a no-confidence motion and that too means the ruling party managers are not sure of their core strength in the House.
With the impending tall promises of economic reforms laid out in the Budget, what confidence would the market have in a ruling party that these promises would be implemented? Where is the surety that these reforms would even be introduced in the House? Who would invest in a country whose Central government is not sure of its own core support, like the Trinamul Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)?
Apparently, the Trinamul Congress and the DMK are unhappy with the Budget proposal to impose customs and excise duties on oil and petroleum products. The government may have its own reasons but the increase in import and excise duties would only increase prices at the consumer end. What would happen to the much-advertised steps to curb inflation?
The stepping back on the Women’s Reservation Bill plays out the internal contradictions of the UPA-2 for public view. The Trinamul Congress under the mercurial Mamata Banerjee as a constituent of the UPA is increasingly becoming a thorn rather than an ally. Ms Banerjee has had her way in the Railway Budget that disturbed the economics of prudence the Congress wants to promote to present an acceptable face to global investors.
The Railway Budget did not pay any attention to finances but catered only to West Bengal. The proposed projects would raise operational costs beyond 90 per cent of revenues earned.
Here is a government whose Railway Budget speaks in a language different and contrary to what the Union Budget does. Ms Banerjee has not kept her opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill confined within the Cabinet. By abstaining from the vote in the Rajya Sabha she has made herself very clear — that she is prepared to ditch the government if it does not give in to her demand for a quota for Muslim women.
In fact, her West Bengal-centered politics entirely plays on the Muslim sentiment. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that she is in competition with her sworn enemy, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on grabbing the Muslim constituency. She is also in conflict with the UPA’s home minister, who is directing a strategy for elimination of the Naxal menace. Instead of joint police action, Ms Banerjee wants a dialogue with the Maoists.
With the Yadav duo withdrawing their “unconditional” support to the UPA, the stage is set for the Trinamul Congress to demand its pound of flesh. No wonder Ms Banerjee is prepared to take the plunge and leave the UPA like a leaky ship that is about to sink. Hence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chief and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are left with only one alternative — give in to Ms Banerjee if push comes to shove.
This is the reason why the Women’s Reservation Bill is held up. Despite the support from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left, the delay in the bill reveals that the government is on shaky ground and that too within 10 months of its so-called popular mandate. That uncertainty has already started to dent its claims on economic reforms. The crucial determinant of this programme is the move on the oil front from the administered prices to market prices. The recent increase in administered price of oil products was advertised as the first step in this process. Though muted, the resistance to it by the Trinamul Congress and the DMK could push the government to the wall and it could be reduced to a wafer-thin majority.
The DMK, as an ally in UPA-2, does not want to face the electorate with the unpopular oil price hike and sky-rocketing food inflation. The party is already in the throes of a contentious political succession with three members of the Karunanidhi family jostling for the seat that the current chief is all set to vacate.
The bitter rival of the DMK, J. Jayalalithaa’s All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, has found the dent that she was looking for and she is playing on it. Also, it is said that Dr Singh is exasperated by the Tamil Nadu-centric minister for chemicals and fertilisers who often remains absent from Cabinet meetings.
Caught between a Tamil Nadu-centric DMK and Bengal-centric Trinamul Congress, the UPA-2 makes a laughing stock of itself. According to various news reports the Centre has moved no further on its reform proposal to give food subsidies directly to the target audience — those who live below the poverty line. The reason is not only the complexities of identifying these families but also the complex interplay of several vested interests that have a grip on the food subsidy and are diverting food grains meant for the poor to the open market.

For the economic reforms to break through these walls of misdirected subsidies, as well as a string of militant outfits from Naxals to Northeast insurgents all living on extorted funds, a government with a strong will and solid support within the country is needed. Those who expected UPA-2 to provide that strength are finding that they had bet on the wrong horse with this government taking as many steps backward as forward.

Balbir K. Punj can be contacted at

Balbir K. Punj

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