Monday, December 6, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, December 06, 2010

IT is almost a month since President Barack Obama addressed MPs in the Central Hall of Parliament. As expected, he waxed eloquent about the strength and resilience of Indian democracy. But look what’s been happening since. Democracy in turmoil and a government in paralysis. Never in the history of India have almost all the pillars of democracy come under strain as it is now. For the past few weeks, Parliament, the office of the prime minister, the ruling Congress party, high constitutional offices like the Central Vigilance Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General, not to speak of the media have come under the most intense scrutiny. Thanks to the government’s cussedness in refusing to yield to Opposition demands for a joint parliamentary committee to probe the 2G spectrum scandal, we are about to witness for the first time ever, an entire session of Parliament going by without any meaningful business being transacted.

In a set- up like ours, it is the duty of the government to develop a consensual approach to ensure that governance is not continually derailed. It is more so when the ruling party doesn’t enjoy a majority on its own and has to seek support of multiple partners to stay on in office. But the relations between the Congress and the Opposition parties are so icy that administration is paralysed and the resultant turmoil overshadows the burning issues of the day like inflation, law and order, Naxalism, education, healthcare, etc. Hardly a day goes by without yet another skeleton tumbling out of one more government closet.

Far from attempting to repair the damage, the government chooses to remain obstinate.
Much of the government’s pain is actually self- inflicted. You can sense that things are going to go wrong when the voice of corporate lobbyists prevails on a matter like selection of a minister in a crucial ministry. It came as no surprise last week when the Supreme Court chided former telecom minister A. Raja for showing disrespect to the prime minister by ignoring Manmohan Singh’s advice on spectrum pricing. The judiciary is now questioning not just ministerial behaviour but even high constitutional authorities like the CVC and the CAG. In office, they have all done their jobs admirably well, but it is their post- retirement sinecures that have caused not only the courts but even political parties to question the impartiality of their tenures. The Opposition parties want CVC P. J. Thomas out because they don’t believe he is impartial. Congressmen retort that more than two Manmohan Singh decades ago, the then CAG TN Chaturvedi who had indicted the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofors scam was later rewarded by the BJP with a Rajya Sabha membership and a subsequent promotion as governor of Karnataka.

If this government had done its homework carefully, the office of the CVC would not have been dragged into the dirt it now finds itself in. Unfortunately, this government is not blessed with talent that commands enough cross party respect to help defuse tensions. Yet there is an acute shortage of leaders. The undisputed leader Sonia Gandhi is content looking after the party and has no inclination to interfere in the government. Senior leaders like Sharad Pawar have absolved themselves of all responsibility of ensuring government stability.
Pranab Mukherjee remains the exception. His stature as a minister is only rivalled by his abilities and integrity as a leader. He is the only firefighter who commands respect across the spectrum. But with the government stumbling from one crisis to another, Pranab da is clearly too exhausted to think up new and ingenious ways to win over the Opposition.

The only other firefighter is A. K. Antony but he is so much of an introvert that, faced with a problem that requires tackling, he is more likely to cross his fingers and hope it would go away on its own. Of the rest, barring the odd Kapil Sibal, Veerappa Moily or P. Chidambaram, all are loyalists strutting around in 10 Janpath’s shadow. None of them is either willing or capable of either dealing with the Opposition or dividing it. And to top this, we have a prime minister with unimpeachable integrity and honesty but absolutely apolitical.

The result is that we have a party in power but no leaders, a government in office but no governance, a parliament in session but no legislation. All this makes one thing clear: the pillars of democracy that President Obama so spiritedly spoke about are beginning to crumble.

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