Coalition, the new fig leaf

Posted on February 24, 2011 By Shankkar Aiyar

Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Apparently sometimes, says Manmohan Singh, good men can do nothing. Because “some compromises have to be made in managing a coalition government”. Or else “we should be ready for elections every six months”. The context of coalition must weigh heavily on the Prime Minister. The word coalition surfaced 17 times in his interaction with editors last week. It surfaces frequently — in a speech to the CWC, in response to the Rajya Sabha members and even in the interview to McKinsey Quarterly.

The articulation each time is persuasive. You are expected to accept the inefficiencies of coalition as fait accompli. Or else! Coalition and therefore inefficient governments it seems by design is a default option facing the nation. Given the arithmetic of parliament coalitions are a necessary, even virtuous alternative to chaos. Surely this cannot be the alibi for all the ills haunting India, the counter to the arraignment of the United Progressive Alliance.

Nothing proves a rule better than an exception. Before the 26/11 attacks India was easily the softest sucker state as terrorists bombed cities at will. Shivraj Patil’s reign at North Block was disastrous, four years of unblemished incompetence. Enter Palaniappan Chidambaram. Using his sharp tongue and intellect he whipped a somnolent ministry into action and inspired confidence in a billion people. Do we blame the disastrous handling of terror attacks till 26/11 on coalitions or the incompetence of Shivraj Patil? And what do we ascribe to the return in confidence but to the political will and leadership of P Chidambaram. It was a coalition between 2004 and 2008 and it has been a coalition since.

And yet the very same Chidambaram, who came out all guns blazing to tackle the internal threat of Maoist insurgency across 200 districts, finds himself shackled by his own party. As I write this column, the government of Orissa is going through the domestic version of the “Kandahar swap” to free the collector of Malkangiri.  So is the confusion in dealing with Maoism the consequence of “coalition compromises”? Or is it the result of woolly headed romanticism nurtured by a section of the Congressmen who see gun-toting thugs masquerading as innocent vigilantes.  Or is it — cynically speaking — the result of a misplaced calculus that estimates the strategy will yield a full majority in 2014. And who were the strongest opponents of the “reclaim India” strategy if they were not Congressmen!

Truth is in ministry after ministry, department after department there is listlessness, a sense of drift that has little to do with coalition politics and everything to do with lack of ideas, commitment and leadership on how to tackle the burning issues from food price inflation to promoting investment to enable job creation to raise incomes, consumption and growth. And mind you, this is the first government in the history of independent India with nine former chief ministers in the cabinet. And what do we have to show for all that experience?

Consider food price inflation now raging for five years. Everyone and their cousins have by now blamed Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar for food price inflation. But is he the lone villain? Isn’t inflation management the responsibility of CCPA and CCEA? And how many Congressmen are there on the CCEA?  Or take the much messed up public distribution system. In 2005, the Planning Commission informed the government that barely 27 paise of every rupee meant for the poor reaches the beneficiary. So what have we done about it? Chidambaram told an audience at Davos that nearly 50 per cent of the money allocated for roads does not get spent on roads. Is this a secret that the UPA cabinet was not aware of and could not act on?

Last month the government set up a GoM to deal with corruption. Among the ideas they discussed was the first chapter (Master Key to Good Governance) of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. Good? The ARC has submitted 15 chapters — the first one — in June 2006 and its last in April 2009. What about other chapters of ARC II? It is being considered by another GoM.  Last week the cabinet committee on political affairs were forced to spend time, thanks to a PIL, on the recommendations of the Ranganath Mishra Commission on affirmative action for Muslims and Christians. Good? The recommendations were submitted in September 2007.

Yesterday India was informed that there is acute shortage of coal, the country will import over 150 tonnes of coal and rising coal prices which have shot up to $129 per tonne would push power generation cost by 70 paise per kwhr. So why is the country with one of the largest coal reserves facing this crisis? Because production of 660 million tonnes of coal is on hold trapped in the ideological debate between the high command, power, coal and environment ministry who are all Congressmen. Last week, Mukesh Ambani-led RIL divested 30 per cent of its stakes in gas fields to BP and lured $ 9.1 bn as FDI. What does RIL plan to do? It will invest in overseas fields. Is anyone wondering why large Indian corporates are not investing in India?  Fact is investors have had it with the whimsical “go”, “no go” GoM routine.  So who is to blame? Coalition compromises?

The attempt to blame coalition politics for the scam-a-day track record of UPA II would have been hilarious if it had not been so tragic for the polity. Let us assume that the 2G scam was the consequence of one man’s machinations and that the entire cabinet was innocent and blissfully unaware of his chicanery. What about the S-band scandal? In this country where test reports of howitzers are traded openly how in God’s secular name was a deal of this magnitude unknown to those who should have known! What about the other scams — CWG in Delhi or Adarsh in Mumbai?

A coalition is a crutch to come to power, for greater common good. It cannot be turned into an alibi for non-performance, for allowing thugs to hijack a regime and convert it into an extortion centre. In 1991 Manmohan Singh used the challenge of economic bankruptcy to unshackle India from licence raj. The outrage against the UPA is also an opportunity, to dismantle the licensed scam raj and deliver India from

political bankruptcy.

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