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Losing sight of reality

The Congress has squandered the 2009 mandate. Somebody with political instincts needs to give it a wake-up call, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2011 21:12 IST
Ashok Malik

New Delhi's favourite all-season sport is speculating on the next Cabinet reshuffle. This month, to go with the foggy winter mornings perhaps, it has become a particularly confusing and mind-numbing pastime for those in the Congress. Inevitably, there are the rumours. Some are decidedly bizarre: the finance minister, this government's Cardinal Richelieu, will be moved out a month before the budget. Some are almost comic: replacing A Raja with TR Baalu as a DMK nominee in the Cabinet constitutes an image makeover.

In the end, how much of this matters? Is the average age of the Union ministry - the subject of such agonised commentary - really more relevant than a hard look at the government's idea of its political legacy and policy priorities? If the names change but the essential philosophy remains the same, will UPA 2 be any better off?

In late February, the budget session of Parliament begins and nobody - not in the treasury benches, not in the Opposition - has a clue as to how it will go. Will the Opposition's demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) inquiry into the telecom scandal stall Parliament, as it did in the winter session? Should this happen, will governance continue to be paralysed and will India meander towards an early election?

These are not idle thoughts; they are being discussed by members of Parliament. Those elected to the Lok Sabha a mere 18 months ago, and some of them have only just moved into their official houses, are terrified that a series of accidents could force them back to their voters three years before time. The opportunity cost for India - which had given the Congress a fairly robust mandate in May 2009 and expected stable and purposeful governance - would be incalculable.

Should this nightmare scenario play itself out, there may be no obvious winners. However, there will be one obvious loser: the Congress, which would have squandered the gains of 2009. As such, it is in the interest of the ruling party to break the deadlock and ensure the budget session proceeds along normal lines. It has to give its opponents room to walk away from an extreme position. Perhaps this requires conceding a joint parliamentary committee, perhaps it does not. That is a matter of detail.

It is here that the government's political wisdom has come under serious scrutiny. First, in defending Raja, contending there had been no revenue loss from his escapades and, in a sense, no telecom scandal at all - and in suggesting the Comptroller and Auditor General was imagining things - the telecom minister put the government on the warpath with a key constitutional institution. More important, he put the weight of the Congress and the government behind Raja and in effect said the former minister would be defended to the last.

There is disquiet over this maximalist approach even within the Congress. Should the telecom minister's quixotic belligerence be embraced by the entire government, the Opposition will have no option but to persist with its filibustering.

Second, it is easy for ministers and public officials to lose themselves in New Delhi's bubble. Arguing for Raja's innocence with convoluted logic may make for a great television debate. Similarly, claiming food prices are rising because Indians are now richer and can pay more - a point made by the deputy chair of the Planning Commission, among others - may seem accurate in a textbook sort of way. Yet, they are extremely impolitic. It is one thing for technocrats to look at legal minutiae or long-term economic numbers and conclude that in the broader framework all is well. Clumsily articulated, this sounds insensitive, brazen and completely out of touch with the prevailing public mood.

Third, the Congress has been so caught up in planning for Rahul Gandhi's sooner-or-later ascension, in believing the BJP has been decimated forever and in doing dress rehearsals of a comeback for itself in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, wherever, that it has forgotten the thrust of the 2009 election. It won a mandate from specific sections to fulfil specific expectations. In particular, the wide spectrum of the Indian middle classes and Indian business backed it to trigger the politics of growth, further economic opportunities, narrow India's infrastructure gap, make land acquisition rational and transparent, bring in agriculture reforms, take steps to address the food economy's supply-side distortions. The Congress has not moved on any of these. In some cases, it has blamed coalition partners; in most cases, it simply hasn't bothered.

In Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, there is a description of what confronts Robert Gates as he becomes United States secretary of defence in the midst of the Iraq war, and finds soldiers being denied critical equipment: "Many of the Pentagon's endless meetings, schedules and intense debates seemed to be about some distant, theoretical war. Those officers were busy designing and buying the new ships, jets, tanks, radars, missiles and the latest high-technology equipment in their modernisation programmes. They were gearing up to fight the wars of 2015 or 2020, while ignoring the wars of 2008."

Gates brought the Pentagon down to reality, back to the tasks of the moment. Somebody with a political instinct has to do it for the Congress and its sleepwalking government.

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal)