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Between the line

Less murky than before
June 17, 2009


INDIA’S political scene looks far less murky than before. This was reflected in the first session of Parliament after the general election. There was no shouting, no boycott and no walkout. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also assured a bipartisanship approach in the first speech at the Lok Sabha.

What really has brought about the change is the demoralization of the opposition and the confidence of the ruling Congress. The latter depended on some 12 parties to run the government after the election five years ago. This time it needed only 66 members to form the government at the Centre. This was provided by its pre-poll allies, ambitious Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, fiery Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and pro-LTTE Karunanidhi in Tamilnadu.

On the other hand, the regional netas have been cut to size by the voters. The Communists who made the Congress government possible last time are too downhearted to criticize it even when their main agenda—the opposition to the sale of public undertakings-- has been treated with contempt. The Prime Minister has announced their privatization. The BJP, even with 130 odd members, feels too humiliated to challenge Manmohan Singh who was described by BJP leader L.K.Advani as nikamma Prime Minister during last election campaign. The Congress, it seems, can dictate terms if it so decides. For example, the party can get the bill on reservations for women in Parliament. But it is not pushing it because the party wants consensus which is on 20 per cent reservation instead of 33 per cent which the Congress has promised in its poll campaigns.
Yet the party had its own Lok Sabha Speaker. Meira Kumar who has been unanimously elected is competent, soft-spoken. But she is a member of Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s team of loyal members. The office demanded a person of stature. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that the Speaker represented the House which in turn represented India. When Sonia Gandhi made up her mind to have a Dalit woman as the Speaker, the rest followed. In the process, the position of the Speaker has been devalued. She made the office of India’s President a non-office. Now she has done the same thing in the case of the Speaker.

It would have been always difficult to find a successor to Somnath Chatterjee who annoyed even the communists, once his comrades, by adopting an impartial posture and giving independent rulings. But Meira Kumar’s feet are far too small to fit into his big shoes. But then the institutions have always bothered the Nehru dynasty. Indira Gandhi demolished practically all the institutions that her father, Nehru, had built. Sonia Gandhi has completed her mother-in-law’s unfinished work.

I do not know the fuss made over the constitution of new council of ministers. It was given out that both the prime minister and the congress president had to balance the demands of regions, religions, castes and the likes. If even after 62 years of independence, the party that won 206 seats could not choose people on the basis of merit and integrity, it should realize its helplessness against the demon of caste it has created. True, the caste has stalled communalism. But both represent the forces which taint the idea of secular India.

I also cannot understand the time-- 11 days-- taken to constitute the council of ministers. It may serve as a corrective to both the prime minister and the congress president to know that Nehru submitted the list of his ministers on August 14, one day before they were sworn in. There was no draft, no deletion and no addition to the list. Nehru wrote straightaway in his own hand the names of his ministers and their portfolios against them.

Despite the claims of checking the background of members in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers, some have questionable credentials. Many are round pegs in square holes. Too much has been made about the youth. The average age of ministers is 63. Only five are below 40 and none of them has been given a cabinet rank.

I can understand the reason for dropping the two most loyal ministers to the dynasty, Arjun Singh and H.R. Bhardwaj. They had outlived their utility. But why to drop a sensitive minister like Saifuddin Soz? He had the courage to write an honest report about the lack of rehabilitation by the Madhya Pradesh government of Narmada Dam oustees.

It looks to me as if there was no problem in selecting the first 11 cabinet ministers who were sworn in along with the Prime Minister. When it came to allotting portfolios, only six of them passed the muster. Then it was a ‘Mahabharat,’ to use the words of an insider. So powerful is Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister-in-waiting, he could force the entry of some of his close followers into the government.. Were Rahul’s nominees to become a ginger group within the party to put pressure to give clean governance their appointment would serve the purpose.

Belonging to the upper middle class, as they are, it may be difficult for them to extend rural job guarantee scheme to the urban unemployed because the upper half would have to carry the burden of expenditure. They are already unhappy over the government’s statement that the oil price in India would be at par with the international price.

At the same time, the government has announced the policy of disinvestment. The sale of government’s undertakings would lower its earnings. Where is the leeway to spend on schemes to help the poor? It is apparent that if the wealth is spread out—necessary for the lower half to benefit—the sight fixed at 8 or 9 per cent growth would have to be cut. In other words, the upper middle class MPs who represent the think-tank of Rahul Gandhi may not travel the path hewn before the election to attract the aam aadmi.

The kurta and pajama is a welcome sight in the Lok Sabha because it reminds me of post-independence parliament. The kurta and pajama, then in khadi, may represent the fashion, not the determination to uplift the people. All such persons are the Babalog of the British days. Limited resources cannot also afford a jumbo council of 79 ministers. Nehru’s first cabinet had just 14 members. It is not the expenditure that I have in view. Such large paraphernalia does not give the message of austerity which the nation needs to follow.

Peace in South Asia becomes all the more important. This may help government save the expense on positioning a large number of troops at the borders. The Taliban should make us realize that the old, entrenched ideas can only be defeated if a government has a moral side to it.

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