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Mainstream, VOL L, No 24, June 2, 2012

No More Sunshine

Friday 8 June 2012, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Foggy days with low visibility are not unusual in this season in New Delhi but they have never been so hazardous as they are in Indian politics today. In fact, there is little sign of sunshine breaking out in the near future as the Parliament meets for its Budget session in less than two weeks, on February 20.

Twelve months ago, there was no warning from the government how serious was the economic prospect. Rather the Finance Minister, heralding the so-called new economic policy, behaved like Santa Claus doling out goodies to all and sundry through his famous tax-liberalisation Budget. Kudos were showered on him and the bright boys in the North and South Blocks—the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office—were found strutting about as economic wizards. They still strut about no doubt though their wizardry has ceased to comfort the public. They are the ones who planned the dramatic price-hike on the petroleum products bringing cold shivers for the political bosses as they faced the very first onslaught of public protests. The third-rate melodrama that followed with a virtually stage-managed “party pressure” on the government through the hollow ritual of an emergency meeting of the Congress Working Committee, brought only marginal reduction, demonstrating once again the government’s incapacity to read the signs of the time. One is yet to know if those in authority have understood the magnitude of public resentment as could be gauged from the overwhelming response to the Opposition call for the Delhi bandh on February 10, notwithstanding the State Transport autho-rities’ short-sighted obduracy in trying to bring out buses with the result that as many as over 200 of these were damaged, and also the Door-darshan’s anti-news about it which deceived nobody but angered many.
With this petroleum price-hike episode, the talk in the Capital has largely come to centre round the grim economic crisis that faces the government today. Such a situation has no precedent in the four decades since independence: even in the difficult days of 1965-66, the prospect was not so bleak as it is today, while the confusion and maladroitness on the part of the political leadership were never so acute.

In effect, it is no longer a question of economic adjustment: the situation is assuming the dimension of a political crisis. The image of authority that was so painstakingly sought to be projected about the Rajiv establishment no longer holds true in the eyes of the public. Apart from the mess-up that could be seen in the price-hike controversy, the worsening situation in Punjab—with the Centre almost saying that this is Barnala’s headache and not its own—is taken by the public as a failure of Rajiv’s political leadership, so much in contrast to the abundant praise that came seven months ago in the wake of his accord with Sant Longowal.
In many parts of the country, the political credibility of the Centre is getting eroded. In Kashmir, for instance, the Congressmen, barring a few unscrupulous leaders, have seen through the folly of propping up the corrupt and unreliable Shah Ministry, and yet the Centre prefers to back it for fear of being routed by Farooq Abduliah’s popularity in the election that is to follow the ouster of the present Ministry. In Maharashtra, nobody takes the Chief Minister seriously while Shiv Sena reigns in Bombay and the disenchantment in the rural sector is brought out by the trouncing of the Congress-I at the recent by-election at Sangli, a long-held bastion of the party. In Gujarat, the dispatch of the feather-weight Ahmed Patel, as Rajiv’s nominee for the post of Pradesh Congress President, has only helped to intensify factional rivalries. The same may be said of Karnataka where Oscar Fernandes’ arrival as the party President’s nominee has hardly unified the Pradesh Congress. In Bihar, the Congress-I ranks are rattled that Jagannath Mishra has got Rajiv’s testimonial for his Jan Jagaran campaign while Chief Minister Bindeswari Dubey faces the liability of being regarded as Mishra’s yes-man. In Uttar Pradesh, the State Government has displayed poor wisdom in preferring to be a mere bystander in the highly explosive dispute about the location of a mosque being turned into a Hindu shrine at Ayodhya—a patently communal issue which can be exploited by both sides to the detriment of the Congress itself. In distant Kerala, the Karunakaran Ministry is counting beads as it talks about a snap poll about whose outcome the Centre itself is not sure. Nearer home, Bhajan Lal pressurises for the Abohar-Fazilka pound-of-flesh with the Centre betraying neither a will to solve the Chandigarh issue nor the readiness to discipline the Haryana Chief Minister for his provocative posture.

Not indeed a flattering scenario for a party claiming to command nationwide allegiance. And as political authority subsides, the loyalists around Rajiv, in the true style of time-servers, are demonstrating their incapacity as well as inability to handle even minor issues. This was clear last week when after massive fanfare Jack Anderson’s telefilm, Rajiv’s India, was mishandled by them all. It was shown and cleared—with deletions and editing—as many as three times and then suddenly withheld, and no plausible explanation has so far been given for it. The film may not be anything very much more than a campaign commercial as some overseas comments are reported to have indicated, and it is quite possible that some Congressmen were hurt that Indira Gandhi was downgraded and Rajiv extolled in it, while others (perhaps Ministers) feel being left out when one of them, a young Minister, got the major share of the interview. What however is extraordinary is that the government should have fumbled so badly as to force Doordarshan to abandon it at the eleventh hour after wide publicity beforehand—inevitably giving the impression that it does not know its own mind. Jack Anderson’s venture may be a minor item but its mishandling only helps to strengthen the impression that things are getting more and more messy in New Delhi.

From a major economic shock to minor breeze over a television film, the government’s way-wardness in facing issues and problems has been dangerously destroying its credibility. One gets the feeling that the Rajiv Government, after months of nonchalance in dealing with the hard realities, is now fighting shy of facing them. This way the difficulties do not get solved, nor can these be locked up in the cupboard. If any-thing, they assume formidable proportion by being ignored or neglected.

An instance of current topicality shows the dilemma. After having talked loud so long about its determination to go ahead with the Seventh Plan, the government is now faced with the predicament that either it has to prune it down or boldly go for measures which would demand major surgical operation of a magnitude never required before. As things stand, it is scared of public outcry in the event of its deciding for a truncated Seventh Plan, and therefore is also not expected to pluck up courage to face the prospect of having to drastically touch entrenched vested interest if it has to implement the same Plan. This dilemma has overtaken the Rajiv Government largely because at the crest of its popularity last year it embarked rather thoughtlessly on a course that sought to destroy many of the props of our mixed economy in the name of freeing it from the shackles of the past. In the bargain, a big surge forward was ensured for the market forces with their total commitment to profit-making and equally total irresponsibility towards socially planned economic development. Instead of correcting the imbalances and incongruities that crept into the economy thanks to the power of Big Business, the Rajiv Government has in the last one year helped to strengthen the same business interests to the detriment of planned development. The resultant prospect today is that the market forces have become more intractable and they can hardly be brought under leash unless the government is prepared for a drive of revolutionary dimension—about which there has so far been no signs at all.

In the midst of this enveloping demoralisation, there comes a breath of fresh air in Ramakrishna Hegde’s decision to step down from Chief Ministership because of the Karnataka High Court strictures on what has come to be known as the arrack bottling contract—strictures against the government and not against him personally. One may try to run it down as a gimmick or play it down as an escapist move. All the same, it has enhanced Ramakrishna Hegde’s stature in the eyes of the public. No doubt this step, unilaterally taken by him, has put his party into difficulty while it has come as an embarrassment for many of his neighbouring non-Congress Chief Ministers. Yet in the midst of depressing gloom, the general public response to Ramakrishna Hegde’s step—no matter if it has been taken at the spur of the moment or after cold-blooded calculation—brings out the fact that integrity is still valued and not dismissed as an old-fashioned fad unsuited to the 21st Century.

(Mainstream, February 15, 1986)

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