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Is anybody home?

In India, as we've seen from the roll-out of a liberalised economic policy in the 1990s and the reforms in various sectors that followed, to the India-US nuclear deal in 2006, a democratic consensus is required. Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2011 02:12 IST
Chanakya

In any discussion of 'India versus China', one point keeps coming up with unerring frequency: China's leadership, unfettered by the pulls and pushes and the trip-ups of a multi-party democracy, is able to make and implement policies without any hitches. If Beijing decides to open up, say, foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail - as it did by allowing 100% FDI entry some time ago - then it does just that without fuss from any quarters. For those doing business in India, one can detect an element of envy underneath all that criticism about red tape and lack of reforms here. Of course, in China, they wouldn't have been able to criticise, a point driven home last year at a book event by the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he pointed out that such talk would "get them lined up against a wall and shot".


In India, as we've seen from the roll-out of a liberalised economic policy in the 1990s and the reforms in various sectors that followed, to the India-US nuclear deal in 2006, a democratic consensus is required. It starts off as a radical idea, usually perceived as a hare-brained scheme with the much-touted aim of 'selling the country to foreigners'. But then with the right levers cranked and the needed pulleys pulled, it becomes a policy that in hindsight seems the most sensible thing to have done.

Or it doesn't.

As was the curious case of the Cabinet decision to open up FDI and then it being shoved into the (pun definitely intended) cold storage by the same Cabinet after opposition not only from the BJP and the Left, but also from UPA allies such as the Trinamool Congress and the DMK, and - horror of horrors! - from within the ruling Congress itself.

Was the move to steamroll in a policy by Manmohan Singh and some of his trusted lieutenants such as Anand Sharma the moment when India tried to 'do a China'? It certainly has had devastating consequences for the image of the government.

One of the greatest mysteries in the second innings of the UPA government has been why it decided to send out a stealth bomber when all the arc lights were trained on it. Pranab Mukherjee had the painful task of formally informing Parliament on Thursday that the FDI decision was "suspended till a consensus is developed through consultations among various stakeholders". He also was the bearer of an apology to "those members who had supported FDI in retail and might be feeling let down" at the Congress Parliamentary Party where he added that if the UPA had gone ahead, "it could have created a crisis for the government". Both the announcement and the explanation were obvious before Mukherjee was pushed to the microphone to state them.

What the government, however, still hasn't explained is why it kept everyone in the dark. I asked a senior Congressman, the kind of person you would reckon would be in the know, about what he thought was the reason behind even partymen being not consulted. "You should ask Pranab Muk-herjee and Anand Sharma that. I have no clue," he said, agreeing that the government looks unserious about anything now.

And it's not just the FDI imbroglio that has made the UPA look confused. The report by the parliamentary standing committee on the draft Lokpal Bill that was tabled in Parliament on Friday had three dissenting notes on the exclusion of lower level bureaucrats from the lokpal that came from Congress members. While the report has no standing beyond providing recommendations, in quick succession there was yet another display of a divided House from within the Congress.

The art of consensus-building seems to have been lost with the UPA government. The Congress is certainly no greenhorn when it comes to bringing others around to its view even in a motley zone like Parliament. And with masters such as Pranab Mukherjee in the government, it certainly isn't the lack of ability that has made the UPA government shy away from building bridges across torrid waters.

I would think that the decision to not seek out a consensus on FDI and the Lokpal Bill is the effect, rather than the cause, of a Centre that cannot hold. When you seem reasonably sure that even your own allies and partymen won't be convinced by your argument, never mind those who are 'professional opposers', then the desire to push through things by yourself becomes paramount. Which would be fine in a set-up like China, but not in India.