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Prem shankar JHA

Monday 7 June 2004, by JHA*Prem Shankar

Not Sonia-Manmohan, but the populism of UPA constituents is cause for worry

The media, especially TV, is getting it wrong once again. Ever since Sonia Gandhi declined the prime ministership and nominated Dr Manmohan Singh, TV anchors have not stopped rubbing their hands at the prospect of a ’power struggle’ in the Congress in the not too distant future. The stage, they claim, has been set by the separation of the post of the Congress president from that of the Prime Minister. In the past, whenever this has happened, it has spelt trouble. In 1950, the struggle between Congress president Purushottam Das Tandon and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru very nearly split the party.

Panditji won that battle and chose not to force Tandon and his supporters out. But he made sure he would have a totally compliant man in that position as long as he was prime minister. For most of the time U.N. Dhebar filled the post to his entire satisfaction.

In 1969, Indira Gandhi was not so magnanimous and did split the Congress party after developing irreconcilable differences with Congress president S. Nijalingappa. Ever since then, the two positions have been held by the same person.

The media therefore has history on its side, but it could not have arrived at a more erroneous conclusion. Power struggles erupt out of unfulfilled ambition. In Sonia Gandhi’s case, what is the ambition that remains unfulfilled? The prime ministership was hers for the asking. Indeed, her alliance partners, her own party and at least half of India were begging her to accept the position. She did not take her decision on an impulse, so there is nothing to regret. And her selflessness has made her probably the best-loved person in the country today.

Dr Manmohan Singh too is not exactly a power-hungry politician. Indeed, the surest guarantee that history will not repeat itself is the fact that for both of them power is not an end in itself, but only the means to an end. The goal that both of them aspire to is a stronger, better-off, more peaceful and secular India. Both are aware that they can only achieve it by working together. They can, and probably will, differ on how it can be attained, for in the coming months they will respond to pressures and compulsions coming from different sides. But precisely because they are not motivated by personal ambition, these differences will be constructive, not destructive. In the near future, therefore, India will gain from the dialectic that Sonia Gandhi has unleashed within the Congress party.

It’s the other power struggle the media should be worrying about (and to give it credit, some of its anchormen are). This is the struggle to weld an effective, progressive government out of elements whose sheer diversity takes one’s breath away. Many see the Left parties, who have so far neither joined the United Progressive Alliance nor fully accepted its Common Minimum Programme, as the main hurdle. But Manmohan Singh’s problems run much deeper: the Delhi-based ideologues of the Left are becoming the intellectual mentors of a gaggle of caste-based parties within the UPA, led by Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, that have little understanding of the economic parameters within which the government must stay if it is to keep GDP and employment growing without sacrificing India’s new, and hard-won, international competitiveness.

What they bring to governance is little more than a hotch-potch of populist slogans and cliches that do not reflect even a glimmer of responsibility towards the future of this country. Unfortunately, the Left is giving these a thin veneer of respectability. This is happening because while it too is equally bereft of new ideas, it carries the mantle of the ’Institutional Marxism’ that had dominated public discourse during the decades of the command economy.

The impact that this combination could have upon policy is reflected by the tidbits of the CMP that have been announced so far (that is, by Thursday noon).The new government will not go ahead with privatisation except in circumstances that will never exist; it will not go ahead with labour law reform to permit the retrenchment of workers and, therefore, the shutting down of enterprises. This will only be possible if the trade union at the enterprise agrees. The government will ’review’ the Electricity Act, which effectively means it will not, at least for the time being; freeing transmission and distribution is being put on hold. Other statements by newly-appointed ministers indicate that the sick, loss-making Shipping Corporation of India will not be privatised and that petroleum product prices might not be raised to cover the skyrocketing cost of oil, at least for some time.

We therefore have a long list of negatives-things the government will either not do or will undo, but so far not one single hint of what it will do. Yes, various Congress leaders have promised to raise growth, accelerate employment generation and massively increase investment in infrastructure, education and health. We will, no doubt, find these worthy goals enshrined in the CMP. But until the government tells us precisely how it will raise the resources needed to do all this, these will remain empty statements of intention.

It is important for the future of India that this government should succeed. If it turns into another edition of the United Front government of 1996-98, the BJP and its allies will roar back to power. And this time they will be minus the restraining influence of Vajpayee and Advani. I will try to remain optimistic till the CMP becomes available and Chidambaram presents his budget. But the portents are not reassuring. The Congress and its allies will do well to remember that the electorate voted out the last government because it wanted change, and a new beginning. It did not vote for continuity, much less retrogression.


in Outlook India, Monday, June 7, 2004.

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