The government of India has a strange habit of mixing issues, some time economics with politics and some time economics for its survival. The two recent issues before the parliament are a notion for vote of no-confidence against the Manmohan Singh government and the other, foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. The two are different in purpose and intent.
The motion for vote of no-confidence, sponsored by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was meant to defeat the government on the floor of the House to force early elections. The motion is essentially a question of numbers. With the BJP and the CPI(M) coming out openly against the motion, the government always looked like it would win hands down.
There was a remote possibility of the BJP changing its stance if it saw the government could be defeated. However, the ruling Congress was not sitting idle. It had got smaller parties on its side, along with Uttar Pradesh leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose son Akhilesh runs the state government. Then there was the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, who was also with the government. So, even if the BJP and the CPI (M) were to support the vote of no-confidence, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would have still scraped through.
In fact, the motion can be counter-productive. Its defeat has given the Congress an opportunity to go to town, saying that the government has won because it has done good work for the people. All the scams and scandals will be sought to be whitewashed. Mercurial Mamata is a one-track person. She took the decision without consulting any other party because she was annoyed with the government at the Centre, without caring about the fate of the motion. She expected the CPI(M) to oppose her, but not the BJP.
The question of FDI in retail is not related to numbers in parliament. It concerns the entire country. Fearing a defeat on this question, the government has already begun saying that it is an executive decision which does not require the support of parliament. The measure has already been gazetted through a notification. New Delhi is emphasising that the FDI does not apply to states which will have to decide individually whether they want it or not.
Maybe, opening the retail in trade to foreigners will help people confront the capricious shopkeepers, especially those dealing in food products — raising prices as and when demand increases. True, all the 500 million retailers, their estimated number, do not behave the same way. Many are conscious of their responsibility. Still FDI is not in the interest of the country.
Against this backdrop, the government is conscious that parliament’s rejection would be a slap on its face, a rejection which the opposition would exploit. Therefore, it is possible that the government would try to evade voting. After all, it is for the Lok Sabha Speaker to decide whether the debate on FDI in retail should be followed by a vote. On the motion of no-confidence, the government cannot avoid voting but in FDI it can.
After the debate in parliament, the bigger question on the government’s viability till the general elections in May 2014 will become tougher. The government can, at the most, postpone another vote of no-confidence in six months. That is a long period for working out the permutations and combinations. And what happens until then to governance which is already stricken with sloth and corruption?
There is no-go from mid-term polls if the ruling combination wants the country to move forward. The economy is not dependent on reforms, but on the people’s shoulder to the wheel of development. At present, there is no such mood in the country. The growth rate which has come down to 5.8 per cent may go down still further because the people’s and investors’ lack of trust in the rulers.
What one can see is that the ventures dependent on individual initiative have fared well. The entrepreneurs have, on their own, propelled the economy upwards despite the government meddling. In fact, most cases of failure carry the stamp of government’s bungling. Manmohan Singh’s rule did not take remedial measures when the faltering economy required correction. However loud the denial, the policy paralysis and slow decision-making are palpable.
Political parties, including the Congress allies, are not enthusiastic about what the government’s future plans will be. Even the Congress sometimes looks like going over the exercise. The harm to the country is beyond calculations. The only explanation which I heard in favour of continuing with the present Lok Sabha, the Lower House, is that most of its members will not either get party tickets or will not get returned. This argument may be saleable to political parties, but not to the people who want a change.
Probably, there is something in the point that both the main parties, the Congress and the BJP, feel that they will not be able to retain the number of seats they have in the present Lok Sabha. The general impression is that both parties together may not cross the figure of 250 in the 545-member house. But what the two do not realise is that their stock is going down rapidly as the days go by. The Congress may be a bigger loser, but the BJP will not be a gainer. Regional parties may benefit.
Both the Congress and the BJP will find themselves dented further when Gandhian Anna Hazare tours the country from early next year. He had once caught the imagination of the intelligentsia. There is no reason why he would not do so again. He may not be in politics, but what he says or does will have a great impact on the next parliamentary elections.
This is all the more reason why both the parties should opt for an early election. They may retrieve some ground when the wind for change has not turned into a storm. But then the past experience is that political parties have preferred the status quo to new challenges. This is the tragedy of political parties and that of India too, because it gets the worst of both worlds.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.