Friday, November 18, 2011

UPA 2 : When Politics Trumps Institutions

The following mid-term perspective of the UPA2 rule was written for Centre Right India and published on their site here:

Pasting the whole article below :)

‘I have orders from above.’

When a minister of state (with independent charge) in the union Cabinet says this to his officials, what does it mean?

'I have the blessings of my leader'

When the Home Minister of this country is asked a question, "Do you have the confidence of your leader?" after multiple terror attacks, he answers "I have the blessings of my leader". So who is the leader that the Home Minister is referring to?

"He almost warned that even if the Bill is passed by the Cabinet, he would complain to the UPA leadership"

This report says that Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar was upset about a sports bill (yep, you are reading this right. The agriculture minister was opposed to a sports bill, for the obvious reasons!) that was presented to the Cabinet and therefore in the cabinet meeting (which by the way, many ministers from the allies skip), said he will complain to the UPA leadership. What did he mean by "leadership"?

Back in High School, in our civics lessons, we were taught that the Prime Minister is the most powerful person in the country. We were told that all ministers report to him. We were taught that he/she is the ultimate authority when it comes to decision making. In fact when one is preparing for any state or central service examination, an entire chapter is devoted to explain about the authority and responsibilities of the Prime Minister. As assignments, students are made to write short/long essays on this authority of the Prime Minister of India.

So based on our high school experiences, the answer to all three questions above should have been the Prime Minister.

Alas! Two-and-a half years into the second term of UPA (more pompously called UPA 2.0), it is now time to either rewrite all those lessons or have an addendum - "all general rules have an exception, Dr. Manmohan Singh is an exception to term 'ultimate authority' ".

The above three links of ministers invoking a "leader" other than the PM is just a small sample of the erosion of the authority of the PM. Remember the incident where MoS for Railways openly defied the PM when asked to visit a accident site? Remember the Prime Minister's press conferences when he said he could not prevent the loot because there are "comprimises to be made in coalition". Mamta Banerjee openly flirted with Maoists and the Prime Minister was helpless. Month after month, the rot in agriculture ministry was being talked about but the Prime Minister could not do anything about Sharad Pawar. The losses and mis-management of Air India are a hot topic in TV studios every now and then. Yet, Praful Patel was always let off the hook. The Finance minister and Home minister of the country trade (very) serious charges of spying and 2G scam and it took people other than the Prime Minister to bring about a truce.

There are only three major allies which share power at the centre. DMK, TMC and NCP. Members of the cabinet from these parties have either pioneered massive scams or have been the cause for huge losses to the exchequer through their sheer incompetence and greed, and we have a Prime Minister who cannot even touch their toe nails! And that is the most enduring legacy of this UPA government. The abject surrender of the authority of the Prime Minister of India.

We have had 14 people as Prime Ministers so far (including Gulzari Lal Nanda). We have seen weak Prime Ministers, who could not exude any kind of authority. Such tenures were short-lived because of their lack of assertiveness. And in the course of time, their tenures will be forgotten too. But this Prime Minister is different. He will be the first PM (and probably only PM) who tried to sell his helplessness, incompetence and unreasonableness as an unparalleled virtue!

And now you must be wondering - if PM is not the ultimate authority, then who is? It has been successfully passed to the Chairperson of the NAC, and the Congress President, Sonia Gandhi (full list of her "achievements" here). The NAC she leads is the parallel decision making authority when it comes to policy matters. Sonia Gandhi is the parallel decision making authority when it comes to political matters. Manmohan Singh is the decision making authority when it comes to maintaining status quo!

Politics of Divide/Vendetta

The strength of a democracy depends on how freely the opposition (not just the political parties) is allowed to work. Another enduring legacy the second term of UPA will be leaving, is the politics of vendetta. Question them on corruption - immediately very old cases are dusted and thrown out in the open. If the principal opposition party, BJP questions them, then "what did they do in the 6 years they were in power" is parrotted with the help of a compliant TV media. If a politician falls out with the Congress party and leaves it, then automatically he becomes a corrupt person. If citizens of the country question, then either obscure income tax cases are foisted on then or lectures are given as to how they don't vote, how they resort to petty bribing and blah blah. Attempts were even made to discredit CAG but thankfully they failed at it (atleast for now!)

Anyone, practically anyone, who dares to the question the government is automatically hounded by it. There is very little informed debate on matters concerning public interest, and the primary onus for this fall in standards rests on the shoulders of the ruling party. If you don't want to believe me, then please follow the debates (I know it's a challenging task :D) on TV for about a week.

Vote bank politics have reached their peak during UPA. It is always about "minority welfare", "minority well-being", "minority rights" etc. This is not to say that minorities should not have any of those. It is just that the ruling party is creating this divide that will only be detrimental to the country's progress. At every step, the ruling party makes the minorities feel weak, and then project itself as their saviour. Any government's aim has to be to empower them. This government is doing the exact opposite and worse, is proud of doing it.

Federal Structure

Fellow blogger Jiten documented in 2009 that there was an ad in TOI during the Maharashtra elections. Gist of the ad being that there will be better centre-state relations if people vote back NCP-Congress to power. And in July 2011, we see a news report that says "State gets little fund allocation in Centre’s schemes: Ministers" !! Guess which state this is? Maharashtra! Congress big-wigs, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh who is a central minister and Prithviraj Chauhan who is the Congress Chief Minister (earlier minister in the PMO!) have made this observation - they accuse their own party of hyping development in their state and thus releasing lesser funds!

The importance of Centre-State relations can be gauged from the fact that it is an important part of the manifesto of all political parties. That congress politicians feel miffed at treatment towards their states is another irony in itself, but that's aside the point. With respect to the States -To interfere when necessary and to give a free hand otherwise - is a sound policy for the centre to follow. This way, federalism is strengthened. UPA has done the exact opposite!

The recent Manipur blockade is a perfect example. For 100 days, the two national Highways that connect Manipur to the rest of India have been blocked, and the centre has not even moved an inch towards trying to resolve it. The state government should have taken the lead, but clearly it hasn't and more importantly a state in this country is completely cut off from the rest of us for 100 days and UPA was unmoved! And this is not the first time, a blockade of this magnitude happened. Just last year, there was a nearly 2 month blockade.

The Telangana fiasco is another perfect example. When everyone looked towards the centre for resolving this issue, UPA 2.0 hurriedly took a disastrous decision and the result is there for everyone to see (fellow CRI commentator Amar says that the Telangana fiasco deserves a separate post in itself and I agree). Nearly two years since that "Sonia's birthday gift", this contentious issues continues to bog the people of AP.

Tamil Nadu CM, Jayalalitha made some very interesting observations at a recent National Development Council meeting. She correctly said that the Centre is taking hurried decisions on matters that hugely affect states, thereby reducing the states to merely "glorified municipal corporations". The examples she cited were the Communal Violence Bill (which will give more powers to the Centre than the states, given that law&order is a state subject!), the GST (Goods and Services Tax) and changing formats of Entrance tests for professional courses (this is by far the worst executed program in my opinion. The Centre is giving very short notices for states to comply with ridiculous demands. If you think it is the opposition-ruled states that are complaining, then you are mistaken. Maharashtra and Congress filed a petition just 2 days back against the Centre's diktat on medical entrance test!).

And ofcourse, there is the Governor's post always to be used for political machinations. One perfect example of using this post to undermine an elected state government is from Andhra Pradesh. Surprised at the choice? Here's why I strongly feel so. Mr. E.L.Narsimhan was appointed as governor after the great N.D.Tewari expose. The state was just beginning to go through it's most tumultous phase. Rosaih was the Chief Minister, and since he was perceived to be less competent to deal with such political matters, the new governor was given the mandate of invovling himself in matters of daily governance too. He even reviewed the law and order situation with police officials directly, without the CM or any minister present. Mr. Rosaih once advised his ministerial colleagues something on these lines "I can't do much. If there is anything else, please go to the Governor directly." To date, E.L.Narsimhan continues to play an active role in important matters of law and order. And please be aware, the people of AP have elected the Congress party to govern them. And a crisis in their party, led the UPA to find a solution in an appointed governor, not in any elected leader!

Damaging institutions

The institution of the Prime Minister is not the only institution that has been damaged by the UPA. Do correct me if I am wrong, but the post of Governor has never been so abused before. Either the post has been used for vengeance or to reward it's former leaders. The Governor of MP even announced that it was Sonia Gandhi who recommended him. Buta Singh in 2005, HR Bharadwaj since 2008, Kamala Beniwal recently, E L Narsimhan in AP are examples of proactive governors. Shivraj Patil, Rosaih, M.K.Narayanan, J.B.Patnaik etc get appointed to the royal Raj Bhavans to lead a happy retirement life. Take a look at the complete list and just see the number of former politicians of the Congress on that list.

The CBI has been used like a pawn as never before. Election Commission was bogged down with some controversies. The institution of Vigilance Commissioner was also put through severe testing times only because of the adamant attitude of UPA leadership. During Team Anna Crisis, this government unilaterally decided to not involve any elected opposition parties in delibarations while at the same time had to gall to lecture us on the supremacy of elected representatives! There just seems to be no institution left for the UPA to damage further.

What about policy then?

Quiz Question. What happens when an "economist" PM who concentrates excessively on Foriegn policy. Disaster on both fronts! Inflation has been on a high for more than 2 years. Our "economist" PM has no solution for that. Food prices go up - global problem. Fuel prices are up by Rs.11 over the past 1 year or so - global problem. Spending goes up on social sector, impeding the growth in the infrastructure sector - thankfully not a global problem but a problem whose solution should remain a "priority concern". Mamta Banerjee causes losses to Railways (and thereby to the economy) and we have no one to ask about it. The EAM is there only to parrot the PM's views. The once powerful office of Foriegn minister has been reduced to doing secretary level work to the PM's foreign policy.

We have already seen how Jairam Ramesh goes off the tangent. The less said about Sports ministry, the better. The mess in Civil aviation gets highlighted in Parliament as well as media, but the PM can't even touch the concerned minister. "Rural Development" is happening only in the sense of NREGA, where people are getting income for repetitive work. Kapil Sibal seems to be a man in a hurry. He announced of reforms within 100 days. Two and half years hence, we are still debating them! Speaking of Kapil Sibal, his famous "zero loss" theory in the 2G spectrum scam has become the butt of jokes, but that has exposed another serious legitimacy issue in the government.

All the above mentioned points lead to only observation - UPA's serious problems with decision making of any kind. This is one more dangerous legacy that we will have to live with. Till date, the PM has not clarified whether he agrees with Kapil Sibal's "zero loss" theory. Each minister is on his own. No one knows who takes decision, or at whose behest decisions are taken. It took a Supreme Court to openly direct the investigations on massive corruption scandals, not an executive order. Apart from the above mentioned policy points where decision making has stagnated, take the recent handling of the Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare agitations.

At every step, the only thing that reigned supreme is confusion. First, top ministers go meet Baba Ramdev and praise him. When he goes ahead with his plan for an agitation, they start to deride him. The midnight scoop (because UPA feared communal elements will take over) killed one hapless woman. A similar story with Anna Hazare. All that the "Team Anna" asked in the beginning was to be heard. The egoistic UPA refused to even do that, thereby giving them space to launch bigger agitations and make fiercer (and unreasonable) demands. And then they arrest him, release him, cajole him and finally give in. All this while, there is no single authority of the government saying "Yes, I take responsibility for these decisions".


There is an air of negativity around this UPA dispensation (led mostly by Sonia Gandhi and partly by Manmohan Singh). Mere status quo is being maintained. Dr. Manmohan Singh has reduced the job of Prime Minister to a mere desk job. Even the most tom-tomed schemes of UPA - MNREGA, Loan Waiver, Forest Tribals act are not his ideas. No flagship economic reform has been carried out. During the infamous trust vote in July 2008 (called because of the Nuclear Deal, of which we don't hear anything these days!!), he tabled his speech in which he spoke about "achievements". The first one was about controlling inflation, and we all know how well it is being controlled. He spoke about "revitilising agriculture" and we know what happened there. "To deal firmly with terrorist elements" - we all know what has happened since.

One of the worst things to happen during UPA 2.0 is the Supreme Court's active invovlement in matters concerning corruption related investigations. More than a couple of times, the SC has rapped the government for it's lethargic response. The political legitimacy of UPA is in serious doubt only because it is the judiciary and not the executive that is driving the cleaning up act. The political legitimacy of UPA is in serious doubt not just because the centre is severely undermining the states. Last, but not the least, the political legitimacy of UPA is in serious doubt only because it is Sonia Gandhi who is driving policy and politics, not the Prime Minister.

Arun Shourie summed it up best, in an interview on the 2G scam - "This was not the Manmohan Singh cabinet that the ministry could do anything. It was Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet. You could not do one milimetre more than what Cabinet has decided."


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