By Swapan Dasgupta
If past political conduct is anything to go by, there is a strong case for believing that the Congress leadership took an inordinately long time to decide on the new Council of Ministers because it was buffeted by an infuriating array of pressures that are always difficult to handle. These ranged from alliance compulsions, fierce personal ambitions, community and regional pressures and the overweening desire to have a stake in the so-called ATM ministries.
Despite the large-heartedness with which the baring of fangs was viewed by a country desperate to get back to a semblance of governance, the first hiccups of Manmohan Singh’s second innings indicated that old-style politics is still firmly entrenched. The first statements by the new Law Minister and the HRD Minister also indicated that identity politics is still alive and kicking. The surfeit of English-speaking progenies of the fat cats of yesteryear and the Prime Minister-in-waiting’s two-day-stubble style statement shouldn’t distract from the cynical (or is it reassuring?) belief that it takes more than an election to change the ground rules of Indian politics. As one of the more erudite colonial chroniclers wrote about the attempts to break down the caste system, “ripples on the surface leave the depths unmoved.”
Yet, there is a more charitable view of the quiet kerfuffle that generated countless hours of speculative chatter. And this has to do with the root of the confusion: the uncertainty over the mandate.
It’s a no-brainer to say that Manmohan Singh’s victory was a vote for a stable, five-year Government. But beyond this vote to strengthen the hands of a decent, well-meaning Prime Minister, there is a complete lack of unanimity over what is the mandate. The argument that Indians prefer a middle-of-the-road approach is reassuring but anodyne. It also goes against the grain of the vocal assertion by the babalog brigade that people want a generational change.
The 79-member Team Manmohan makes a mockery of freshness. The real decision-makers are those who cut their teeth in politics in the heydays of either Indira or Rajiv Gandhi. They are experienced but also quite jaded and not normally given to original thought. The wannabe Obamas have been left to grace TV studios and revert to page-3 glamour; they are expected to guard their inheritance, not make policy. Even the completely redundant Ministry of Sports and Youth Welfare escaped their clutches.
Maybe, the “new look” is being kept on hold for the inevitable mid-course transition when the Prime Minister is expected to assume a less exacting responsibility on Raisina Hill. The ambiguity of the mandate may be reflected in the wariness to experiment with impetuosity but it has graver policy implications. The Congress fought and won this election on a basket of issues. There was, of course, the anti-BJP and anti-Third Front dimension of the campaign whose relevance ceased after the results. Then there was the expensive Bharat Nirman campaign which proffered very different imageries ranging from the trip to the moon, modern highways, youthful energy, happy students with computers, smiling peasants and the NREGA. This Indian kaleidoscope was bound together by a stated concern for the aam aadmi.
The triumph of imagery over substance is at the root of the confusion that has gripped the new Government. Many Congress MPs believe, and with good reason too, that the priority to social expenditure in the past five years helped the party ward off anti-incumbency and recover ground among the poorest of the poor. This, coupled with some token minorityism, it is said, was the prime factor behind the Congress reclaiming the social coalition that was lost in the 1990s. The implication is that the new Government must rediscover the legacy of Indira Gandhi with some modifications and press on with ambitious NREGA-type programmes.
The only problem with this triumphant return to big Government socialism is that the requisite resources to fund the creation of an elaborate welfare State may not be as easily available. With the growth rate down sharply from the boom years, a global slowdown, high interest rates, tax collections down and the fiscal deficit at an all-time high, the Government no longer has the elbow room to address all facets of the Bharat Nirman imagery. It has to exercise hard choices — at least till high growth returns.
It is simply a question of resources. A desire to do everything at once will necessitate two measures: sharp tax increases and disinvestment. Any significant tax hikes will further erode competiveness and anger a middle class which voted quite resoundingly for the Congress. Disinvestment, while extremely desirable, is an ideological no-no.
Ironically, it is the successful please-all election campaign that is making choice difficult. Owing to political compulsions the Government has lived in denial, pretending that India was somehow insulated from the global economic crisis. Worse, the political class swallowed this disingenuous piffle with the result that the Government is now faced with unmanageable expectations. The India-lives-in-the-villages poseurs dream of an European-style welfare net with Indian-style leakages; industry wants modest interest rates and infrastructural upgradation; the middle class desire low taxes and aspire for a better quality of life; and the international community wants India to regulate farmers subsidies and carbon emission. All these can’t be met simultaneously.
The easy problem Manmohan faced was deciding who should or should not be a Minister. His most daunting challenge is defining the Government’s priorities. For five years he was the good guy; now the management-by-inaction approach won’t do. Just because the BJP got thrashed in the polls doesn’t make its prescription of “strong leader, decisive Government” any less relevant and desirable.