Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Congress is Shaken and Stirred
The UPA government must get its act together
What a difference a week makes in politics! Last Tuesday, the Congress was reveling in its victory in pushing the women’s reservation Bill through the Rajya Sabha. Commentators were extolling the strategic genius of Sonia Gandhi for the ‘historic’ move that was going to forever transform Indian politics. A week later, things look somewhat different. In a double whammy, the government has been forced to put off the women’s Bill for the time being, as well as defer the tabling of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, a measure close to the heart of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The coalition that appeared solid a year ago looks shaken, if not shaky.
With the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party withdrawing support from the United Progressive Alliance, newspapers and magazines have been once again counting the numbers in the Lok Sabha. Given their ideology and the existing parliamentary arithmetic, no party or combination of parties, appears to be able to replace the UPA. But the very articulation of this issue, a year after the UPA was brought back to power with a near-majority bespeaks of the serious flaws in the political management of the coalition and the competence of the government.
Take the Nuclear Liability Bill. The entire episode: the decision to table it, the absence of 35 Congress MPs despite a whip at the time of tabling, and its sudden withdrawal, has ham-handedness written all over it. It would have been a good idea for the government to have circulated a draft of the bill, explained its provisions, encouraged some debate and discussion, built up political support and then finalised it. Instead, it used the stealth approach and the provisions of the Bill that we are talking about are those leaked by environmental groups.
Everyone knows that in India, the judicial system does not give the kind of humongous damages that can bankrupt a company or an individual. On Tuesday, for example, the Delhi High Court awarded a compensation of Rs 7 lakh to the family of a truck driver who was shot dead by a policeman in a fit of rage.
There is no rationale, therefore for capping liability in India. But there is one for the United States, and the aim of the Bill seems to be to prevent Indians affected by an accident from suing companies in the US. The simple issue here is that if the US companies wish to limit their liabilities in the United States, they should get the US Congress to pass the necessary law. Why ask the Indian Parliament? Of course, the bigger question is as to why the Manmohan Singh government has gone out of its way to help US suppliers. The government would be correct in its desire to offer all potential suppliers a level playing field in India, but surely, passing what appears to be a legislation that could go against the interests of Indian nationals on some future date, is not the way to go about it.
The women’s Bill, too, looks somewhat different. Leave aside the patriarchal objections of the Yadavs, there are other important grounds why the Bill causes unease. Primary among these is the manner in which it will alter a basic element of our Parliamentary democracy—the relationship between the member of parliament and his or her constituency. The principle of rotating constituencies would ensure that one-third of the Lok Sabha would know that they cannot be re-elected from the same seat. This would be a disincentive towards working for the interests of their constituency and its constituents. The other pernicious impact of this would be to shift the balance of power even more towards the “High Command.” As it is, the Congress has an over-centralised political culture, and by loosening the MP’s hold on his constituency, it will make him more dependent on the goodwill of the “coterie” in New Delhi.
There has been a perfectly good idea floating around—that parties be shamed into having women constitute one-third of the list of the candidates they put up for elections. On the other hand, the parties could introduce the proportional representation system in which one-third of the party list of those elected will be women. Mixing systems, such as is being effected by the women’s reservation Bill in its present form could degrade our political system.
There is, of course, the basic objection to quotas as such. The persistence of quotas has affected India’s educational system and the public sector. What was once seen as a temporary measure has become a populist tool. There is no doubt that quotas helped create the critical mass of Dalit government employees who helped Kanshi Ram give birth to the DS-4 and then the Bahujan Samaj party. But his protégé Mayawati has done more for Dalit empowerment than all the populist efforts of the Congress party. The reason is that quotas in themselves are seen as a kind of a grant from society at large and do little to enhance the self-esteem of the recipient. On the other hand, Mayawati and the Dalits in BSP do not owe their position and achievement to anyone but themselves and what could be more liberating than this?
India needs some way of addressing the important issue of nuclear liability and breaking the pernicious hold of patriarchy in our politics and social life. This may require legislation, or it may not. But both do require a more intense and honest process than we have seen so far. The problem is the political culture of the Congress party which veers from populism on one hand, to implementing important policies through stealth. The whole point of a democracy is the ability to take a plurality of voters along with you on any given issue. In the era of coalitions, building pluralities and majorities is not easy. First, opinions and views on an issue can vary. Second, and more important, our political parties are devoid of any morality. There are parties which take one posture on an issue while in office and can take the opposite view when in opposition. No one said that governing India
The Congress party has to stop deluding itself that it has a two-thirds majority in Parliament. It does not even have a majority. In this situation, it has no choice but to engage coalition partners, the opposition and the public, to build up support for its policies.
This said, we need to celebrate the debate and discussion that the women’s Bill and nuclear liability legislation have brought about. Mature deliberation and intense argument will actually strengthen the policy goals of transforming the lives of women and providing for nuclear liability. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Ms Sonia Gandhi are, quite laudably, people in a hurry.
But they should heed the hoarding which reads “speed kills”, and learn the fine art of defensive driving— the only kind that works on Indian roads.
Mail Today March 18, 2010