Three major events happened this week in New Delhi. The first, of course, was that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition (comfortably) won a confidence vote in parliament, which means that India’s proposed and long-delayed nuclear deal with the United States has full parliamentary approval.
The second was that the rampant extortion and bribery that have swept across Indian politics in the past few years were paraded in parliament and on television. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, stormed into the central area of the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) waving thick wads of rupees that they claimed they had been offered to abstain from voting.
The third – and equally significant – event was the emergence of 39-year old Rahul Gandhi, who is widely regarded as a future prime minister, as a credible parliamentary performer. When the fallout of the latest drama has cooled down, this will be seen an important step in Gandhi’s development as the heir apparent to three former prime ministers: his father Rajiv Gandhi; his grandmother Indira Gandhi; his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru; and his mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who leads the Congress Party and UPA coalition.
Until now, Rahul Gandhi has failed to emerge as a competent politician, despite having been a member of parliament for four years and being projected as the Gandhi’s heir. In recent months, he has been laboriously touring the poorest parts of India, meeting people and hearing their problems – preparing himself, he has said, for his political future.
This week, for the first time, he spoke with confidence in parliament about energy security and the benefits of nuclear power. He parried interruptions and coped calmly with the parliament having to be adjourned because opposition MPs objected to some things he was saying.
The bribery allegations were made when BJP MPs threw bundles of notes totaling one crore of rupees ($230,000) onto the Lok Sabha table. Three MPs alleged that they were offered nine crore of rupees ($2 million) to abstain by the Samajwadi Party, the Uttar Pradesh party that has provided the basis of the government’s support since Communist-led Leftist MPs withdrew earlier this month. They said that this had been endorsed in a telephone call with Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, thus implicating her and the Congress Party.
Both Patel and the Samajwadi deny the allegations. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha will now hold an inquiry. But whatever the truth of the MPs’ claims, it is widely accepted that many offers of ministerial jobs, political favors, and cash have been demanded by, and awarded to, MPs to switch sides or abstain. These attempts at coercing MPs have been much more blatant than in the past, and they illustrate how corrupt politics in India has become. It is not just the fact that big sums of money were offered, but that political parties have – through extortion and bribery – gathered sufficient funds to be able to afford them.
Despite all that, India can now move ahead with the nuclear deal at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It hopes that it can overcome some opposition in these two organizations fast enough for the U.S. Congress to approve the deal before President George W. Bush leaves office.
This will open the way for large-scale nuclear power contracts for companies from the United States, Russia, France and elsewhere. The United States also hopes it will improve the chances of its companies winning big defense orders involving companies. Companies such as General Electric (GE), Boeing (BA), Lockheed Martin (LMT), Honeywell (HON), and Raytheon (RTN) stand to gain.
This week’s vote was a major success for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, who forged the deal with the United States and has taken the initiative in recent weeks to push it through parliament. A shy and retiring former bureaucrat, he has emerged as a capable politician.
He is expected to try to introduce long-delayed economic reforms in the coming months, now that he is no longer shackled by opposition from the Leftist parties. The reforms could include liberalizing pension funds and banking as well as divesting stakes in some public sector companies. He will, however, run into opposition from various vested interests and is likely to avoid anything that needs parliamentary approval because the coalition’s majority in the Lok Sabha is shaky due to the the hodgepodge of small and unreliable parties that formed the majority this week.
But the overwhelming image at the end of a tumultuous two days of debates in the Indian parliament was not the government’s victory, nor Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a credible politician, but of the MPs waving the bundles of rupees in the air, alleging they had been offered mammoth bribes.