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.)
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.
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.