Posted by: John Elliott | December 30, 2011

A fitting end to a disastrous year in Indian politics

It was a fitting end to a disastrous year for corruption-ridden India’s floundering government, destructive parliamentary opposition, and self-serving politicians. At midnight last night, amid almost unbelievable scenes of chaos and uproar, legislation to introduce an anti-corruption Lok Pal (ombudsman) stalled in parliament with MPs on all sides shouting and screaming at each other about whether and when to vote on over 180 amendments.

This was just the latest of a series of examples this year of how coalition leader Sonia Gandhi and prime minister Manmohan Singh are unable to run an effective government. The examples range from their slow handling of corruption scandals, to their clumsy attempts to deal with a mass anti-corruption movement, and their failure to reinvigorate the country’s flagging economy, declining international image, and faltering business confidence.

The parliamentary opposition has made matters worse. Scenting blood with a stream of corruption allegations against leading members of the government, it has been in destruction mode – maybe thinking it can force an early general election (though it is itself in no fit shape to fight one). 

Consequently, India now has a coalition government that cannot govern, partly because of its own internal failings and contradictions, and partly because of a vicious opposition that has no new coherent policies of its own but wants power.

Making matters worse, are regional parties in the Congress-led coalition that have little interest in the nation as a whole – the worst offenders being Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal that is focussed primarily on demonstrating her own personal power, and Tamil Nadu’s discredited DMK party that has focussed on accumulating illicit wealth for its ruling regional dynasty. (Banerjee joined the opposition in disrupting the Lok Pal Bill last night, and the DMK has been the prime mover in this year’s devastating telecommunications corruption scandals.)

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MPs are no doubt content today with their behaviour last night (right). Firstly, as has happened repeatedly since the 1960s, they have successfully avoided introducing a Lok Pal which could have impeded the extortion and fraud that run from their own offices and homes right through the economy and society. (Parliament is now in recess till the Budget session starts late in February or early March, when the government says it will re-present the Bill).

Secondly, they have plenty of ammunition to use in campaigns for five state assembly elections that take place in the next two months – both sides can claim that the other has shown is not interested in stemming corruption because it prevented an effective Lok Pal being introduced, and also stalled two other anti-corruption bills on judicial accountability and protection for whistleblowers.

The idea of a Lok Pal is far from simple. Action is certainly needed to stem corruption, and that needs effective independent investigation that does not currently exist, but it is arguable whether a Lok Pal ombudsman is the right answer. If the ombudsman and supporting bureaucracy is as strong and independent as Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner, would like, it could seriously undermine the authority of the prime minister and the entire government machine with devastating corruption investigations and accusations. But if it is as soft as the version that was being debated in parliament this week, it could have little effect. Either way it is highly likely that it would itself become corrupted – as Amitabha Pande, a retired senior bureaucrat, argues (click here).

But India likes debating symbols and creating icons rather than facing reality, and the Lok Pal has become an iconic symbol of a fight against corruption that few have wanted to wage.

The good news this year however is that the “few” are becoming more numerous, especially among the young and the middle classes, who have demonstrated during mass protests this year that change is needed. This pushed the government into preparing and tabling the Lok Pal Bill against deadlines dictated by Hazare.

Politicians of course hope that this groundswell of protest will die away, as such movements usually do in the tumult  and contradictions of Indian society. The government was wrong on that however when Hazare-led fasts and demonstrations in April (picture below) were replicated across the country in August. It has been gambling again this week that Hazare’s civil society movement is losing support, as seemed to be happening when he moved his latest fast and mass meeting from the winter cold of Delhi to warmer Mumbai and then faced health problems. But last night’s fiasco gives him the platform he needs for fresh protests during the state election campaigns, and then in Delhi when the weather becomes warmer.

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What is clear is that something needs to change in 2012. India cannot repeat 2011 without doing serious damage to its economy and fabric of society. The exposure of corruption ranging from the telecommunications scandal, which reaches to top government ministers and the prime ministers office, to the 2010 Commonwealth Games graft that is rumoured to reach even further, plus mining scandals in many states, shows how deeply ingrained extortion and greed is in politics, government and business.

These exposures are of course good and necessary, but they have had a negative impact on government decision-making at a time when new right-to-information laws are revealing details of confidential government decision-making years after decisions have been taken. That has made bureaucrats and politicians scared to sign off on projects and policies, and has almost halted decision making from top-level to minor decisions in many areas.

That in turn has had a negative impact on the economy and has led many industrialists to complain about ineffective government.  Businessmen were also upset earlier this year when Jairam Ramesh, then the reforming environment minister, blocked projects that often corruptly flouted environmental rules. That led industry to exacerbate a declining investment climate by claiming Ramesh’s actions were driving them to invest abroad. Ramesh has now been moved and businessmen are instead complaining, quite rightly, that the government needs to do more to boost the economy.

The government has focussed on iconic policies such as foreign investment in supermarkets, which ministers unwisely and falsely built up as a major economic boost last month and then failed to implement (partly because of Mamata Banerjee tantrums.) Significantly, while pursuing such diversions, and dealing with the growing Lok Pal crisis, ministers have been paying insufficient top-level attention to issues that could cripple the economy such as, for example, drastic power shortages that are being exacerbated by insufficient coal supplies.

General election logic

In all this, Manmohan Singh has seemed to be able to exert little prime ministerial authority, except possibly in foreign affairs. Sonia Gandhi has suffered from ill health and was in the US during August for a rumoured cancer operation. It is still not known how well or ill she is, though she is now back at work at the head of the coalition. Much now depends on how successful her son and heir, Rahul Gandhi, is in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly election which takes place in February. He is staking his political reputation on boosting the Congress Party’s currently small role in the state and, if he does well, is expected to play a bigger role nationally.

If Congress were to build a sizeable position in UP, it should then logically call a quick general election to try to boost its numbers in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and thus have to rely less on unpredictable coalition partners. But MPs hate having to risk losing their lucrative seats before the due date (2014), so that is a political gamble that it is unlikely to happen.

If an election were called however, it could pave the way for a more coherent and stronger government than the one that is now failing to govern India.

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Responses

  1. As always thoroughly enjoyed your article.
    Puts our own problems in the UK into some perspective.
    Tim

  2. This is the state of ALL political parties — Analysis of background of MPs — http://www.wahsarkar.com/2011/12/neta-profiling-party-wise/

  3. Comments on The Independent (UK) website http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/12/30/a-fitting-end-to-a-disastrous-year-in-indian-politics/ where this blog also appears:

    bendethu
    Main reason for failure of this bill is that the corrupt MPS and their cohorts have been caught offside and have had not the time to remove their loot from their prospective hiding places. They need a breather to be able to stash this elsewhere. Be it the ruling party or the opposition,they are in it together . The grandfather at the top has no clue , the elite that rule have made sure he stays there until the dynasty takes over and continues for the next Sixty years what they have been doing to the country for the past 60 years. The only time India ever did any good economically was when the dynastic nehru family were not in power. It will take time for getting rid of this parasitic family from ruling India.

    SouthAsianObserver
    India, as also the rest of the World, could benefit a lot by incorporating into it’s Constitution, an amendment that forces all public authorities to place on the internet the details and scanned copies of all their incomes and expenses, contracts, credits and debts, and in general all public rights and obligations within three business days of having exercised such power. After all, if they are admistering all these goodies in order to benefit the public, as they say, why shouldn’t the public see all of it?

    leconfidant
    If India and Pakistan were to mutually consented to monitor each other’s corruption, they would each do a wonderful job and they’d be a long way to a peaceful coexistence.

  4. Yes, This have been very bad for last three years. But the deterioration started the day NDA lost the office. All these righteous politicians and Economist P Chidambram with a view to demonstrate his skill of collecting Higher taxes took on the servicemen and changed all the simple forms of taxations were made complicated. It gave an indication of things to come. Some how all those people who had been brought in tax net by NDA carried on paying their taxes and revenue did not get affected for few years but dropped in later years( Remember till today there is no service tax on Advocates, but it was proposed for hospital services).
    The Congress designed MNREGA to make people feel that they were sincere in caring for Aam Aadmi. All the revenue diverted to non productive infrastructure building and demolishing for the sake of paying (leaking) the bills and meeing targets.Then came the next election and Madam Sonia Gandhi broght in Loan Waiver.
    Then the society gathered and started for transparency in Governance because some people had sensed the design. They got the RTI somehow.The day first Scam tumbled out the investors became conscious and pulled out the money. The Govt kept on assuring that the world community is not much concernrd with corruption but inflation. They had only one tool of reducing inflation was by reducing money supply and hence further degrowth.Scam after scam tumbled out.US was already in the grip of its own crisis which also affected us.The Govt wasted more time in providing information and managing and hiding its fall out.
    So came the Lok Pal stir. This further delayed the decision making and all those thugs in decision making started camouflaging their corrupt decisions. But No Sonia is hell bent on bringing her son to power and forced the Govt to adopt her Security of Food bill.
    Mr John, Sir, We are not out of problem as this election will further give a split Verdict and No strong Govt because we do not want a strong Govt of Corrupt Sonia

  5. John: This makes me (almost) feel cheerful about Europe. It would be interesting to read your views on just how debilitating India’s dysfunctional central government is for the country’s economic development. It has often been said that India has been able to grow because competition between the states to attract investment and raise living standards has offset the impact of stasis and incompetence at the centre. Is that still true, or have policy gridlock and rancourous politics in Delhi reached the point where they threaten to paralyse progress nationwide? A column or two that placed the failures of the Singh coalition in that broader context and explored their wider implications would be welcome. Meanwhile, best wishes for the New Year. G.


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