Time for fresh push in UPA
By B G Verghese
03rd August 2012 12:11 AM
Bar the shouting when the final results are declared, Hamid Ansari should romp home comfortably as Vice-President of India. Pranab Mukherjee has already moved into Raisina Hill. That these offices should have been contested is perfectly democratic but it is a pity that Purno Sangma, an otherwise respected and deserving candidate, should have diminished himself by the unrestrained manner in which he denigrated his opponent. Many hard words are spoken during elections but the dignity of presidency should never be lowered.
With these elections behind him, the way is now clear for Manmohan Singh to move full throttle on reforms — multi-brand retail, insurance, pensions, a National Counter Terrorism Centre, the Lokpal and Grievance Commissioner Bill, Judicial Accountability, first decisions on implementation of higher defence/security reforms and so forth. Many will gasp at such a bold agenda after two lost years in drift. However, the PM is a free agent now. Mamata Banerjee’s bluff has been called, leaving her looking more ridiculous than ever. The NCP’s tantrums, likewise, may not do the UPA much harm. The fact is that there is no replacement for Singh in the Congress or UPA-II until 2014; the UPA partners may huff and puff but need Congress support; Rahul Gandhi says he’s ready for a “larger role” (who isn’t?), but may need to wait. The BJP and its NDA allies are hopelessly divided.
As he will be retiring at the end of his current innings, Singh has nothing to lose. If he chooses to lay down the terms of engagement both within the party and UPA as well as in Parliament the day will be his as it was over the 123 civil nuclear agreement with the United States. Every challenge will put the internal and external opposition under pressure while every success will reinforce further reform. Sounds simplistic to the faint-hearted but is essentially realistic.
However crass acts of misgovernance must end. Where was the warrant for the law minister, no less, to hold secret talks with Anna Hazare on the Lokpal Bill in some hideout recently? Nothing came of it but egg on the face of the government. Anna Hazare is on another round of fasts. Why then pump these deflated egos and invest them with a wholly undeserved importance while causing the UPA, the Opposition and the country to wonder what on earth is going on? Conspiracy theories will abound. The NCP will have a legitimate grievance that Anna is consulted but Sharad Pawar is kept in the dark.
The prime minister must be free to frame, move forward and monitor the big picture. A Cabinet reshuffle is therefore necessary. Some old hands can be dropped with advantage and younger blood brought in by promotion and induction to inject fresh vigour and ideas in the council of ministers. The deadwood thus ‘kamarajed’ should not be rewarded with gubernatorial or other sinecures as has so often happened before. If anyone threatens to resign or actually does so, no blackmail should be tolerated and the spoilers challenged to do their worst and earn the public odium they deserve.
There will be talk of a shift to the left or the right and retail reform will be attributed to Obama’s arm-twisting. Such nonsense must be relegated to a place of honour in the national waste bin. The country has had enough grandstanding about ‘socialism’, poverty, saving the environment, competitive piety, federalism and vote-banking in the name of a hollowed-out secularism even as development is stalled and the till is looted. The examples are many: recently published lists of Uttar Pradesh land grants to Samajwadi Party loyalists; high-profile, post-retirement postings for central bureaucrats; housing loan remissions to defaulting Kerala journalists; an Andhra High Court judge being offered a Rs 100 crore bribe to sanction bail for a powerful mining mafia don in Karnataka; the murderous assault on the Maruti plant in Manesar by workers who broke the legs of a manger who was then left to be burnt alive; the massive pilferage of highly classified IAF modernisation documents; the callous attitude of persons in authority towards mounting cases of grievous battery, assault, murder, rape and sexual molestation that continue unabated as punishments (for the rich and influential) are not exemplary; the Karnataka government sanctioning `18.5 crore to 37,000 temples to assuage the rain gods and prevent drought; fake medical certificates to Amarnath pilgrims leading to more than 85 deaths. Such instances can be multiplied and indicate a weakening of the moral fibre. The saving grace, however, is that there areas many or more mirror-opposite tales. Unfortunately, these attract far less publicity and are not widely known.
Foreign policy too is something that needs careful watch and handling with crises abounding. The AIADMK and the DMK have got into a populist mode in denouncing the routine training of Sri Lankan armed servicemen in India. It started with leaders citing strong popular sentiment against some Lankan air force personnel being trained at the Tambaram Air Force base in Chennai. The government responded by moving these officers to a comparable training centre in Bangalore. It did not disturb other personnel training at the Chennai Officer’s Training Academy or two other senior officers visiting the National Staff College at Wellington in the Nilgiris.
The brouhaha was unnecessary as India has such military training agreements with a number of countries and these are mutually beneficial in promoting understanding and cooperation in security matters. There is nothing sinister or anti-Tamil about the programmes. Moreover, such matters are to be determined on the basis of national policy and cannot be shaped by local jingoism drummed up through competitive polities. India did serious damage to itself when Indira Gandhi allowed the nation’s policy towards Sri Lanka at the commencement of the ethnic conflict in 1983 to be virtually outsourced to regional chauvinists in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE, in particular, was given support and succour in Tamil Nadu and went on the rampage there at a time when India was fighting Khalistani elements receiving cross-border support from Pakistan.
More recently Mamata Banerjee thought she might independently fashion Indian foreign policy towards Bangladesh by vetoing an agreement of Teesta water sharing with Bangladesh on the eve of the PM’s visit to Dhaka to sign an understanding. Such freewheeling external initiatives cannot be allowed and the Centre needs to act more firmly and decisively on these matters, after due consultation where necessary.
These are all issues, domestic and external, economic and social that the prime minister must now tackle boldly. He holds the trumps. Coalition dharma and inter-party politics cannot be offered as reasons to demur, let alone back down. There are no rebates for caution.
B G Verghese is a columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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