Mid-summer madness and politics of surreal kind
By Shankkar Aiyar
28th April 2012 11:21 PM
India’s political landscape has always been marked by a touch of the surreal; it has been an enduring facet. This week, India was treated to a festival of surrealism. Every headline and the response of the political class produced new hypnagogic gems.
The week opened with a classic from Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. In Washington, and bracing the fallout of the candid candor of Kaushik Basu, Mukherjee rejected the perception that reforms had stalled and told a roomful of investors, “There is no vacuum in leadership. There is a very powerful, strong and acceptable Prime Minister.” Almost on cue, the Trinamool Congress issued an ultimatum that “If the Bengal bailout package was not cleared in 15 days…” The “or else” bit was left to the imagination of the Congress.
On Tuesday, Parliament reopened for the Budget Session. You would have thought the MPs would haul up the government on the confessions of the Chief Economic Adviser. That was not to be as events overtook intention. A section of the Congress sent up a trial balloon that four ministers had expressed a desire to renounce their positions and work for the party, that younger leaders like Ajay Maken and Jyotiraditya Scindia would be projected for the poll-bound states. The theory was that the Congress “concerned about its image” was heading towards a major makeover, to recover its mojo.
The BJP, quick on the draw, declared “mere window dressing would not help”. By prime time, Mukherjee padded up for the party, dismissing the rumours “as a figment of media imagination”. He said, “Everybody is doing party work whether in government or outside.” A few decades back, a Nehru or an Indira would have said whether in party of government, everybody is working for the nation. But then, this is 2012. No, the nation didn’t figure in the equation. The idea was to reinforce the optics, all is well.
By Wednesday morning though the bubble of confidence was pricked, and how! Global rating agency Standard and Poor’s changed its outlook on India to negative. It said if the external position continued to deteriorate, growth diminishes and fiscal consolidation weakens due to politics, it could lead to a downgrade. Mukherjee sought to talk up the economy. “I am concerned but I don’t feel panicky as I am confident that our economy will grow around 7 per cent.” He assured that reforms and decisions will be pushed.
Within hours, the ability of the government to walk its talk was challenged. The TMC and the NCP declared that there would be no hike or decontrol of diesel prices. If S&P was looking for validation of its rating review, it couldn’t have prayed for better evidence. The government’s promise to go ahead with reforms was dead on arrival. The future for the economy looked grim.
The focus by evening was not the future but a ghost from the past. Sten Lindstrom, the deep throat of Bofors, revealed in an interview, the mess that the Bofors investigations were. Fact is for 25 years every political party has contributed to the mess. But what was striking was the curious contrast of response. The Congress used the interview to reiterate that Rajiv Gandhi was innocent and exorcise the ghost. The BJP worked the ghost alive, to pin down the Congress on corruption. On Thursday, it demanded a judicial commission on the investigations to probe the cover up.
The effort was drowned by that evening. The government announced the names of those nominated by the President to the Rajya Sabha. It included cricketing genius Sachin Tendulkar and actress Rekha. Someone up there sure has a wicked sense of humour. As one tweepie said on Twitter, the Nirma ladies—Hema, Jaya, Rekha and Sushma—are all in Parliament. The debate though was not on whether it was sab ki pasand or if it would lead to a clean-up.
The focus was on Tendulkar, only the second sportsperson after wrestling legend Dara Singh to be nominated to Parliament. The debate within the political class was what and whether he would be able to contribute and if this was a move by the Congress to appropriate Tendulkar. Not one of them asked what happened to the move to crown him Bharat Ratna. Is this the classic shortchanging of an icon by the political class?
India was treated to some more surrealism on Friday. The BJP found itself facing the boomerang it hurled on Thursday as its former chief Bangaru Laxman was convicted on charges of accepting a bribe of `one lakh. The Bofors gun won its spurs for strategic mobility, for its ability to shoot and scoot. The BJP found itself rooted in its past, facing the barrel as the Congress returned fire. Relief came from another controversy, of the UPA vintage. In a country where millions are homeless and architects are designing low-cost 220 sq ft homes, the UPA allocated 261,000 sq ft of defence land for the President’s retirement home. The President’s office said she was “pained” by the outrage and would forego the land.
The focus reverted to the economy by the end of the week as the IMF lowered its growth forecast for India, citing poor governance and tardy pace of approvals besides structural deficits as reasons. This was the third time in seven days the UPA was pinned down for governance. However in Mumbai, the adviser to the Prime Minister said, “There was no policy paralysis, there is paralysis in implementation.”
On Saturday morning, as the Prime Minister preached the need for cutting fuel subsidies, India was informed that the budget had under-estimated food subsidy bill by Rs 25,000 crore.
As India watched its political class wade through the hyper-newsy seven days, it made you wonder if sanity has gone on a summer vacation.
Surely India deserves better.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own
Shankkar Aiyar is a senior journalist who specialises in the politics of economics
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