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BRIEF HISTORY OF COALITIONS
- The indiscipline among the UPA’s Congress ministers

Indira Gandhi established a highly centralized governance, with the roles of prime minister and party president combined in her. Since the Congress, for most of her time as prime minister, had strong parliamentary majorities, she did not have to consult other parties to concur with her decisions. Jawaharlal Nehru had the adulation of the people. As a principled democrat, he responded to the pinpricks of his party men and the arrows of the opposition parties in parliament. P.V. Narasimha Rao was a poor party leader who purchased his parliamentary majority. He had the courage to chart new paths in economic policies and initiated the eye to Asia in our foreign policy. His poor political skills were most evident with the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya despite indications that it was imminent.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was supreme in his party and easily squelched inner-party opposition. He used government largesse to buy cooperation over the parties supporting his coalition. He also faced opposition to some policies from supporting parties. Unlike the Communists today, they were mercenary parties, not ideologically based. His failure to condemn the killings of Muslims in Gujarat under BJP rule reflected his inability to manage the political contradictions in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Our polity has travelled far in learning to work coalition governments and in developing a coalition dharma since the first coalition government under Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh in the Sixties. There has also been maturity in managing governments supported from outside since these commenced with Indira Gandhi’s government in 1967 supported by the Communists from the outside.

The United Progressive Alliance government, when formed, was a novelty for India. There were three unusual elements: a powerful party leader, Sonia Gandhi, leading the Congress and the policy-making body, the National Advisory Council; outside support to the government by the Communists and the Samajwadi Party, whose support was decisive for the continuance of the government; and a government led by a non-political figure, Manmohan Singh. The combination seemed doomed to failure for many reasons: There were multiple power centres. Manmohan Singh was “non-assertive and weak”. Many cabinet ministers who were close for long to Sonia Gandhi and her advisors would short-circuit him. Sonia Gandhi’s political experience was limited, she would interfere in government and become a victim of the hubris that accompanies such power. The Communists with their anti-American and pro-Chinese agenda would be against almost all economic reforms and so paralyze the government. The resulting chaotic governance would lead to a failed government.

Midway through its term, these contradictions do not appear to have seriously hindered good governance. The equation between the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi seems well-defined. There is no sign of dissonance between them. Her supremacy is established. The prime minister and his government accept it and are responsive to it. On the rare occasions when she has spoken differently from government policy (for example, oil price increases and their later reduction, agricultural land for special economic zones), government policy has changed almost immediately.

The Communists have not brought the government to the brink of collapse. Their stands against disinvestment and privatization of state-owned enterprises, foreign direct investment in telecom, the new pension plans including an independent regulatory authority, the nuclear agreement with the United States of America, and other government initiatives, were strongly articulated. Their rhetoric has cooled over time. They even take to the streets in opposition to government policies. However, they have never joined the BJP to vote against the government in parliament. The prime minister has been firm on many occasions in responding to Communist opposition. On some occasions, especially when the party has similar views to them, he has heeded the Communist views. There is no dispute settlement mechanism as the National Democratic Alliance had with George Fernandes.

The nature of reforms has changed with this government. The NDA thought that India was shining even though prosperity was limited to some economic sectors and to metropolitan India. The Communists were strongly for policies like the rural employment guarantee scheme, the universal primary education plan, reservations for other backward castes in technical education institutions and increased attention to minority education and employment. These policies have stimulated the economy. By benefiting large sections of the population, they will benefit the Congress in national elections. They have not helped the Communists to expand their political influence over the rest of the country. Unlike the NDA’s supporting parties like the Telugu Desam, the Communists have not sought political advantage from them.

Manmohan Singh has shown that he is not a mere economist, but more of a social scientist who appreciates the integrated nature of India’s many problems. For the first time, we have a holistic approach to policies, best exemplified by the initiative to improve India ’s energy security. He has taken energy policy into foreign policies and defence security. The various initiatives on oil and gas with producer countries and the nuclear agreement with the US are an outcome of the recognition of the gravity of India’s poor energy security, the declining and poor quality of our coal reserves, inadequate uranium of our own and high dependence on imports of expensive oil and gas.

Similarly, on economic policies, he has taken a holistic approach. As finance minister, he had concentrated on bringing down the deficit, reducing taxes, opening up the economy, reducing controls on industry, encouraging domestic and foreign investment. In a recent speech, he said that the present euphoria about India’s economy would not last without action on five fronts. These are agriculture, government’s delivery of services, the regulatory framework, public-private partnership and the financial system and its integration with the global economy. He has initiated actions on each.

The rural roads, water and sanitation programmes make rural India a partner in the country’s growth, unlike during the NDA years. Rural markets are becoming important to industry. While there has been a considerable shift from agriculture to non-agricultural activities in rural India, agriculture is yet to get enough attention. I hope that the Swaminathan commission’s recommendations will be implemented and make a difference. A major problem is the fast-widening disparity between the public- and private-sector employees, especially teachers, researchers, government doctors and nurses, public enterprise managers and such. This is a serious issue. It will affect the future course of development, which rests on a strong knowledge base, mostly provided by the public sector.

As an experienced administrator, the prime minister recognized the need to improve our delivery of government services and the consequent need for reforming the administration. The administrative reforms commission, under an experienced politician, must report soon. The entrenched bureaucracy is our biggest hurdle to administrative reform.

India has now built independent regulatory institutions in many sectors and more are to come. They are to usher in transparency and consultation in governing those sectors. These institutions must perform better. Measures to improve their memberships, staffing, accountability, as well as to provide a more consistent framework for all of them are now ready.

The experiment in governance under the UPA appears to be working because of the personalities of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh , the relative integrity of the Communists and a leaderless blundering opposition in parliament. However, there are weaknesses. The Congress must discipline its ministers to respect the decisions of the prime minister. The bureaucracy and its working need urgent reform. If the UPA falls, the reason will be the indiscipline among Congress ministers.

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