Monday, December 12, 2011

A Coalition Dharma .... /The Sunday Standard/ December 11, 2011


A Coalition dharma that Undercuts Cabinet is Bad News Indeed for PM

Once upon a time, India’s destiny was decided in Calcutta when it became the capital of British-controlled India in 1772. Calcutta, as Kolkata was called then, was the seat of the Governor General of India whose writ ran large over all Indian princely states, small and big. In 1911, better sense prevailed and King George V decided to move the capital to Delhi, as it was not merely surrounded by faithful royalty but was also conveniently connected with the rest of the country. Like all of British India, Kolkata too started receiving instructions and directions from Delhi. Almost 100 years later, Kolkata’s present ruler is now talking like the Governor General of India. And after 66 years of Independence, Kolkata is once again deciding the future of the country. History has come full circle.

It was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who first announced the Union government’s decision to suspend FDI in retail trade. Her emphatic revelation came after a telephonic conversation with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. He refused to go public on his private conversation. In Parliament three days later, he lamely repeated the decision Banerjee had announced earlier to the thumping majority of both treasury and Opposition benches. A couple of days earlier, the same finance minister had scolded Dinesh Trivedi, Union Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress leader, for opposing the Government’s decision on FDI. Mukherjee even gave him a few lessons on the functioning and sanctity of the Cabinet, after which the TMC minister made a hurried exit from the Cabinet meeting.

The Mamata Mantra of dictating the discourse of coalition politics reflects the growing erosion of the institutions of both the Union Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Rarely is a Cabinet decision reversed or kept in abeyance by a government faced with an ally issuing public threats. Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found it humiliating to explain his about-turn on FDI to the same Cabinet in which he and Mukherjee had bulldozed and silenced every dissenting voice. It was Manmohan’s Faustus moment. His own party and Cabinet did not fully stand behind him. His allies were defiant instead of being deferential. Prananbda, the permanent prime minister-in-waiting, dropped a bombshell at the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting when he admitted that if the FDI decision wasn’t reversed, a mid-term poll would be inevitable—implying the Government had lost its majority in the House. Both Sonia and Manmohan remained silent listeners to Pranabda’s lament. Rahul Gandhi was invisible by his silence on an issue that threatened the very survival of the Government. The Congress could no longer take for granted its artificial and opportunistic majority in the Lok Sabha.

This is not the first time the Prime Minister has faced strong opposition to his policies from UPA allies. During UPA I, the CPI(M) prevented Manmohan from taking many crucial decisions, but it rarely forced the Government to reverse or hold any Cabinet decision. The Left parties never spoke on behalf of the Government either. However, it is not just the Prime Minister’s authority and acceptability that has been eroded. During the past few months, iconic ministers like Home Minister P Chidambaram, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, forgetful External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, over-enthusiastic reformer Anand Sharma and an experienced Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar have either been sidelined or are facing Opposition ire on one issue or the other. If the home minister is boycotted in Parliament; if the foreign minister, against whom an FIR has been lodged, forgets to read the correct speech; if a senior minister resigns from the Cabinet panel because of opposition from a social activist, the entire Cabinet loses relevance and purpose. No wonder, the attendance in the 34-member Union Cabinet is down by 60 to 70 per cent, with many ministers staying away even from crucial meetings. The Congress swears by coalition dharma but it hardly takes any of the ministers into confidence before taking crucial economic or political decisions. Even within the party, ever since its President Sonia Gandhi fell sick, complete absence of participative democracy prevails. Its five-member core committee does meet often to resolve one crisis after another, but the UPA itself has hardly met in the past two years to take stock of its plummeting popularity and ailing government. It is no more possible for New Delhi to tell others to fall in line or fall aside. Now it is Kolkata or Chennai who writes on the wall. If the Prime Minister and the Congress president refuse to read it, they always land up in big trouble.

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