A K Bhattacharya: Enlightened politics

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 27, 2012 19:30 hrs

Who is to be blamed if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, continues to function in the current listless way, postponing the many hard decisions that need to be urgently taken to fix the government’s finances? Of course, the government leaders and those who are at the helm of the Congress party should be primarily responsible. But in any democracy the role of political parties, particularly those on the opposition benches, is equally critical in ensuring that the government remains on its toes and is held responsible for effective functioning and discharge of its duties. And when these parties cease to be effective in offering constructive opposition to the ruling alliance, the crisis of governance gets deeper and alarming. The Indian polity is at present a victim of a similar crisis.

This is not a defence of the UPA or its main constituent, the Congress party. After having secured the people’s mandate with an increase in the number of Lok Sabha seats in the 2009 elections, the UPA simply failed to live up to the electorate’s expectations of improved governance and sustained economic recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008. Instead, it allowed the government to get caught in a series of corruption scandals and made little effort to bolster the economy with some tough measures that such a situation had warranted. Worse, it had no fresh idea or a policy initiative that could drive its governance agenda.

The only new idea – a unique identity-based scheme for transfer of government subsidies to the beneficiaries to plug leakages and reduce the exchequer’s financial burden – ran into many bureaucratic and political hurdles and moved so slowly that the programme would be rolled out only in the last year of the government’s five-year tenure. Not much was heard even of the key legislative reforms that the UPA government had planned to introduce at the start of its second term.

The idea of introducing the goods and services tax through an amendment to the Constitution and the direct taxes code to simplify the rules governing the direct taxes regime was mooted by UPA-I. It is possible that these two may not be implemented before UPA-II completes its tenure. A new companies law, insurance reforms and a Bill to bring the pensions sector under a statutorily backed legislative regime are yet to be cleared by Parliament. The movement on the land acquisition and rehabilitation law has been slow and the amended mining law is yet to be notified to pave the way for auctioning of mining blocks — the absence of which caused many scams in the country in the last several years.

Mind you, we are not even talking about the more urgently needed reforms on the expenditure side, where the government should have decontrolled petroleum product prices long ago and placed a firm cap on its subsidies bill, which now threatens to be more than two per cent of gross domestic product. Indeed, the list of the government’s failures to bring about reforms and take tough measures to perk up the economy is long. But the time has come when the question would be asked of the major opposition political parties about the role they played in arresting the economy’s downslide. Did they oppose the government for the sake of opposing it? And if so, were they being responsible?

These questions assume significance in light of what has happened in the last couple of weeks. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress decided to oppose the government’s decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. First, it chose to bring in a no-confidence motion against the government in the Lok Sabha, but it failed since it could not get the requisite number of members to support the move. Now, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is keen on a discussion on FDI in multi-brand retail with voting, other opposition parties including the Trinamool Congress are open to having a discussion without voting. The Left parties are also keen on a discussion, but they are wary of being seen together with the BJP on the demand for a discussion on FDI in retail with voting. It is this confusion among the opposition political parties that has given the UPA some leeway even as it has disenchanted the people over the Opposition’s effectiveness of its political strategy. While the UPA may have been embarrassed, it is difficult to visualise how the opposition parties have acquitted themselves well in the eyes of the electorate in their battle against the government.

The BJP and other opposition political parties may argue that by stalling all major government initiatives, at least on the floor of Parliament, they have succeeded in presenting the UPA as a ruling alliance that failed to get its act together and take decisions. This might help them earn a few brownie points with their supporters. But the Indian electorate is sharp enough to understand the purely obstructionist, and often opportunistic, role the opposition political parties have played in embarrassing the government in the last few years. The opposition political parties, either as an alliance or individually, can make political capital of this situation only if they can convince the electorate that when they come to power they will have adequate numbers in Parliament to push through legislation on their own. Such a possibility in today’s era of rising incidence of fractured parliamentary mandate looks remote. It is time, therefore, all political parties realised that opposition to a government must be based on issues and not merely because their only job is to oppose anything that the government does. If there is no change in their attitude, the country and its economy would continue to pay a heavy price.

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