Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > August 9, 2008 > Trust Vote 2008: Indian Political Parties and the "Deal"

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 34

Trust Vote 2008: Indian Political Parties and the "Deal"

Sunday 10 August 2008, by Kamala Prasad

The Trust-Vote debate on July 21 and 22 has generated unexpected political consequences. The ruling UPA won in the number’s game but not in terms of the half-way mark through declared voting intentions. The PM and the Foreign Minister focused on the India-USA Nuclear Deal. The Opposition, on the other hand, focused on the entire performance in the context of the general election within eight months. The reply the PM made targeted its allies of four years and two months. To make his point he specifically mentioned that he did not want to be “the bonded slave” of the Left parties any longer. The CPI-M leader, Brinda Karat, has responded by belittling the PM, stating that he remained slave for four years and two months to enjoy the fruits of office and power and realised the status only when within eight months or so he will have to seek a fresh mandate in any case. It has been sad that the debate between the partners in the coalition government reached this level during and after the Vote. The principal issue of the Nuclear Deal was lost in the bargain.

The Bargain Hunters

A bargain of a different kind asserted itself. This was the spectre of cross-voting and defiance of party whip from almost every party except the Left and the BSP. A total of 23 such votes were cast. Of this seven were against the ruling alliance and sixteen from the Opposition parties. This phenomenon explains the victory and the margin between the new ruling coalition and the rest of the Opposition. The inevitable allegation of purchase and sale of vote with intermediaries of one kind and the other also appeared. Since really knowledgeable debate did not take place nor did the “defectors” intervene it cannot be stated with certainty that all this was conscience vote. There was no prior declaration either as was made by the smaller party leaders or Independents. This lack of political transparency added credence to the media speculation about playoff corporate or black money playing a big role in the Vote. Was it effectively a victory of the bargain hunters just as the US-Congress passing of the Hyde Act was alleged by the New York Times as largely due to the work of US business lobbies?

There was a lot of sound bytes about “national interest” being the reason why a number of parties decided to swing in favour of the government. The uncalled-for reference to the Agreement being against the Muslims did smear the reputation of the Left in particular. But the context is no less important. The Samajwadi Party was the earliest to raise this bogey. This party as a whole became a turncoat for reasons external to the Agreement. The Congress party was at loggerheads with this outfit in UP for all these years. It was now State politics that made the Congress make common cause with it. In the bargain, the Trust-Vote debate had no national interest content in it. The conglomeration that swayed in favour of the government was State-specific. On both counts, then, the rhetoric did not match the reality. What about the oft-repeated national interest in search for energy security in nuclear power? Energy security is a valid national objective. But nuclear power is a small component in a large basket. Exclusivity runs the risk of the diversion of constrained resources uneconomi-cally. What has been revealed so far is the rosy side of the picture based on huge imports of not only inputs but also equipments and technology. Technological dependence as a long-term undertaking cannot be in the national interest. Policy and political bargaining has been lacking in reality and credibility in this debate and “national interest” was only a cover.

Reform Agenda and the Debate

The less said the better about the impact of the UPA-Left disagreement on economic reforms. The NCMP was a compromise of ideologies. It did impose constraints of multiple varieties. But this had another kind of pay-off. It sustained viable policies and schemes that delivered reduction in the margins between the gainers and losers in the reforms process. A major problem of the reformers has been their inability to pull enough weight with the masses and create a strong constituency for relevant reforms. The Congress-Left consensus- making was a process that gave the impression of being a proxy for such constituency. What emerges from reshaping the coalition partners is yet to be seen and judged.

Just three pointers to the shape of things to come may clarify. First, the corporate world, external investment and the stock market have given thumbs up to the breaking up of the old coalition. Second, the self-appointed pundits of reforms have written columns expressing satisfaction at the parting of ways with the Left. Finally, the new partners joining the coalition have the agenda that strengthens cronyism. India’s path of economic reform had led to “mild capitalist cronyism”. The pay-off in exchanging a known ideology to an unknown and the demanding agenda of compensation-for-support may turn out to be the undoing of the social balance struck in pushing through the gradualist process. And this has delivered the high growth trajectory unmatched earlier. There is no doubt, then, that the just-broken coalition arrangement was more of opportunity to take the gainers and losers together to reduce social tension. That is a real loss. Rushing in to change the social balance built into the NCMP before the impending election is disruptive of the rhythm of the much- applauded Indian reforms. The Vote of Confidence had, in any case, nothing to do with reforms that are being pushed in by individuals in government and interested parties outside.

The general claim that the Left had stalled reforms is already under strong challenge and by other than the Left thinkers or politicians. This challenge will grow in intensity with the politics of election added to it. A thorough analysis of the NCMP, the ruling charter of the UPA, will tear the claims of performance by the government in the run-up to the general election.

The Vote and the Media

Mainstream media has not been objective in its presentation of what is at stake. Taking sides is alright but to challenge the bona fide of ideology- based parties is quite another. Beyond this, however, the same media has exposed the kind and quality of bargains and the political power-shift that is being attempted. Will this be positive for domestic politics in the current phase of coalition politics? No one is sure. The Foreign Minister has expressed the realism of a seasoned politician. He has not closed the doors on his Left partners. The allies in the UPA coalition have taken care not to rub the Left as much as to close the door on pre-or post-election alliance. Coalition politics has entered another phase of being in flux.

On another plane, though, the Deal has produced two adverse political consequences. First, it has generated disruption of a stable coalition process into unstable, short-term coalition of individuals for personal gains. Second, it has thrown the prospect of a foreign alliance destabilising politics in the current century. At a stage when there is no lack of destabilising forces within the country the prospect of foreign forces joining in is not in the genuine national interest. The media’s silence on this issue is surprising so far.

Let it be noted that the NCMP, to which the Left was a party, had overemphasised the need to strengthen relations with the USA. That shows the inherent potential for flexibility in a gradualist approach on shifting the fundamentals of foreign policy to test simultaneously what the outcome is. The second point about the NCMP is about energy security. It does mention hydrocarbons but not nuclear power. This implied that a consensus was left for the future to be sorted out. The point emerges that emotions displayed on the issue and the timeframe have been responsible for unforeseen political and social consequences. Indian politics has steered democratic processes of policy-making and legislation in its own way. It is the first time this is being driven by a foreign power, the way interference in the conduct of our foreign policy has appeared to have been guided from outside. At several stages in the debate the US ambassador in India and the spokespersons of the Administration in Washington have issued fore-warnings and India has followed what was desired. Even when the confidence debate was going on the US State Department spokesperson suggested that a minority government was OK with them for signing the Deal! Our own ambassador in Washington almost echoed the US line in undermining the Opposition in public. These are undesirable developments and pointers to our leadership being weak enough not to stand up to external political pressure. This may or may not be true in reality but the perception in such matters cannot be wished away.

Commercialising Policy-making

This brings to the fore the question: has policy-making merely commercial objectives? Or has the economic reforms perspective diluted the political and social content of policy-making?

The Deal has hit Indian democratic politics where it hurts. It has challenged our sense of pride in the independent course in charting crucial policies. It has dented the self-assurance of the constitutional provision under which treaties and agreements do not need parliamentary approval as in the USA. The longdrawn process leading to the Trust Vote has demonstrated that “national interest” is not a matter of broader political consensus across the political spectrum but a matter of numbers, whatsoever the margin of difference. This has implications for the inherent moral authority that provides a commanding place to the Executive in a democracy.

Another aspect relates to the quality of policy- making. The game of numbers alone gives scope for manipulation of votes. The actual numbers that the Trust Vote received was just one short of what the Foreign Minister had indicated in his intervention. This could show that vote-managers had been on the job for some time. It was a well-planned operation in the style the Congress party initiated and has perfected by now. The politics of “aya ram and gaya ram” made its appearance in the turbulent decade of the sixties. It is well and kicking under the patronage of those who can mobilise resources and patronage to swing votes. The trend will gain further momentum. A single-party majority is not in the making yet. The tasks in the current century are more challenging than in the last ones. A new dimension of foreign intervention has been added to the manifold domestic forces of destabilisation and instability of governance. Basically, the Vote has demonstrated that the Deal has minority support only and the manipulated majority will retain uncertainty in the making of social policy. The Finance Minister has already articulated his wish to approach the main Opposition for lending support to the further and controversial reforms agenda. This shows the tenuousness of the momentary victory.

Finally, there are further challenges to the democratic leadership in the coming period. What has been demonstrated is personalised peeve and bitterness in public. So, the leadership has been robbed of the rationality required to deserve genuine democratic trust. There has been a running debate that the quality of political and governance leadership has been on the decline for some time. There was no indication that this opinion will change after the Vote. Building quality political leadership is a much bigger challenge of the century than changing sectoral policies or economic fortunes. Money power in the leadership position is a risk for a country of our diversity and disparities. We cannot afford a plutocracy of the American type. No wonder they get the kudos of being “mature” democracies whereas we continue to plod along as just a procedural democracy.

The author, a distinguished administrator, is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar (now retired).

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)