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Mainstream, VOL L, No 33, August 4, 2012

Just a Reprieve

Thursday 9 August 2012


by Dileep Padgaonkar

The patch-up between the Congress and NCP after a six-day stand-off between the two parties shows yet again that the ruling dispensation chooses at all times to address urgent issues to the detriment of essential ones. For the Congress, the urgent issue was to see that the NCP remained within the UPA-II fold to ensure its survival for the rest of its term in office. And for the NCP, it was to extract the maximum concessions from the Congress to flex its muscles even more vigorously as the next parliamentary election draws near. In the process, essential issues like the looming threat of drought in large swathes of the country, unchecked inflation, communal tensions and, not the least, terror activity in the heartland as well as on the periphery are more than likely to suffer from neglect.

But here is the rub: the patch-up gives the two allies a reprieve but does not by any stretch of the imagination guarantee a smoother functioning of the government. The coordination committee that the Congress has agreed to set up both at the Centre and in Maharashtra—a major demand of the NCP—could well prove to be more of a hindrance than a facilitator of key decisions. For one thing, its powers are far from clear what with the NCP and the other non-Congress partners of the UPA seeking to maximise them and the Congress determined to restrict them to the bare minimum.

This could spell more danger than meets the eye. Deep political and ideological fissures in the UPA on key Bills that have been pending for long—food security, FDI in multi-brand retail, the Lokpal Bill etc.—cannot be easily bridged. On food security, for example, NCP chief Sharad Pawar is isolated in the Cabinet while on FDI in multi-brand retail Trinamul supremo Mamata Banerjee shows no signs of toning down her hostility to it. Ideological differences over economic reforms are rife within the Congress as well. President Pranab Mukherjee’s assertion in his acceptance speech that ‘trickle-down theories won’t help the poor’ is music to the ears of those Congressmen who have yet to jettison the party’s stand, articulated in the mid-1950s, that the state must not withdraw from the ‘commanding heights of the economy’. Mean-while, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi can be trusted to deftly navigate between the pulls and pressures of the populists on the one hand and the pragmatists on the other. The latter have an edge in the coordination committee.

But there is a price to be paid for their success in pushing through reforms. Sharad Pawar, the shrewdest political animal in the land, may have been denied the second slot in the government’s pecking order. However, as the Minister who is senior next only to the Prime Minister in the coordination committee, he is bound to exercise enormous influence, especially in Maharashtra where Prithviraj Chavan, the cleanest Chief Minister of the State in decades, has miffed not only his NCP ally but his own party satraps as well as sections of the bureaucracy with his drive to make his government more transparent and accountable particularly in areas like real estate and infrastructure development.

That explains why he has been excruciatingly slow to take decisions on developmental activities, a fact that his opponents feel will dim their re-election prospects. Chavan himself is convinced, not entirely without reason, that what he faces is a concerted attempt by a cabal of politicians who, in cahoots with the powerful builders’ lobby, are out to clip his wings and, better still, to see the back of him.

That is why the coordination committee in Maharashtra could heighten—rather than lessen —the tensions between the Congress and NCP that are at play at every level of governance in the State. The tensions often take a bizarre turn with both parties reaching out to, say, the Shiv Sena or MNS to strike a deal at the expense of the other. When it comes to the acquisition and retention of power, regional parties do indulge in wanton political promiscuity. The national parties, still stricken with the ‘High Command’ syndrome, have yet to come to terms with this emerging federal paradigm in our politics.

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

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