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An opportunity, not a crisis

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Congress should seize on Mamata Banerjee’s exit to summon the courage to reiterate coalition rules for a working order at the Centre

The Congress leadership should be grateful to Mamata Banerjee for so starkly reminding one and all that this huge country cannot be governed with tentativeness and timidity. Both the Prime Minister and the Congress president should be thankful to the West Bengal Chief Minister for giving them yet another opportunity to demonstrate to the nation that they have the requisite clear-headed understanding of what it would take to work our way out of the current economic woes. Ms Banerjee indeed has done a favour to the Congress leadership by challenging it to behave like a ruling party at the Centre.

Ms Banerjee’s timing is perfect. For the first time, the demands of sensible governance and the political compulsions of winning the next Lok Sabha elections have converged. The voluble middle classes and the vast lower-middle classes need to be reassured that our leaders are capable of producing the basic minimum governing equilibrium. The country is desperately in need of an assurance that at least there are a few leaders who, when pushed to the wall, can commandeer a muscular approach to governance. Electoral rewards will accrue to those who show sincerity and stamina in pulling us back from the brink of economic catastrophe and political chaos.

Show guts

Notwithstanding the seemingly destabilising consequences of Ms Banerjee’s tantrums, the Congress leadership has no option but to display guts and determination to seize the occasion. It has an opportunity to redefine the coalition dharma in a federal polity. If governance in this continental country is to be carried out with a modicum of purposefulness, it is incumbent upon political parties in a coalition to agree to a protocol of mutual restraint. Ms Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has been elected to govern in West Bengal; it has no — and cannot be given — veto over economic, political and foreign policy decisions at the Centre.

Ms Banerjee’s pre-emptory claim to a veto is the basic issue, not the merit or demerit of this or that administrative decision or policy. The polity needs clarity on a coalition precept: whether a political party with just 19 Lok Sabha members should be allowed to ride roughshod over another party with more than 200 members. If Ms Banerjee’s maximalist approach is conceded, the Congress will be guilty of sabotaging its century-old claims to be the natural party of governance. And, if the Congress leadership chooses to cave in to Ms Banerjee’s tantrums, it can rest assured that it will be severely punished by the voters. Nor, for that matter, can the Congress jump from Ms Banerjee’s frying pan into Ms Mayawati’s fire, just in the hope of living another day to lose another battle. As and when the Congress managers cobble together a new working majority, they will do well to insist on certain plain talking about coalition dharma.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that the current and potential allies or supporting parties will themselves welcome firm and clear reiteration of the rules of the game. After all, it was the Congress eagerness to propitiate the lady all these months that emboldened the hotheads in the Trinamool crowd.

In this moment of “crisis,” it should be sobering to remember that during the last Lok Sabha election the Congress had crossed the magic figure of 200 seats, a feat that had eluded any political party since 1991. Yet the historic advantage was squandered away in internal confusion and distractions, producing a massive disjointedness in the government’s functioning and policies, which in turn invited trouble and challenge from different quarters and institutions. Those in the judiciary and other constitutional institutions smelled the spilt blood within the UPA and felt doubly empowered to muddy the political waters. The result was the so-called policy paralysis. The country’s best interests demanded that decision-making break out of this paralysis; and, it was natural that any attempt to break out would be resisted by vested interests and political rivals and would produce some kind of convulsion.

Not unexpected

The Mamata convulsion is not unexpected. As it is, the departure of Pranab Mukherjee from the core of the decision-making was already having its impact. Before the presidential poll, the UPA leadership gave all indications of being a tired team, caught in its own inter-personal insecurities and prejudices, mesmerised by its own inertia, and hopelessly reconciled to a sub-optimal performance. Post the presidential election, a reconfigured balance in the decision-making process is clearly discernible. The Congress president’s own activism has helped produce a definite clear-headedness.

This clear-headedness should be carried forward in a purposeful manner, and reflected in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle and AICC reorganisation. There can be no difference of attitudes and approach between the government and the Congress party. Both sink or swim together. For too long, a false impression has been allowed to be created that there are two sets of calculus, one preferred at Race Course Road and another at Akbar Road. It is time for one and all to realise that there is no miracle voice or face that would replenish the Congress’s political and electoral fortunes; salvation lies in collective team work, not in selective loyalties.

By default, the onus still remains on the Congress to produce a working order at the Centre — for the simple reason that the principal Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has failed to market itself as a sober and serious candidate to whom this country’s fate can be entrusted. Its boorish behaviour in Parliament has not enthused the middle classes, which have an abiding interest in firm and fair governance.

On its part, if the Congress hopes to win back the affection and respect of the middle classes and other critical constituencies at home and abroad, it must undertake a major political re-sculpting. Prime Ministerial authority needs to be seen to have been restored. Those Ministers — the likes of Sriprakash Jaiswal and Beni Prasad Verma — who have been openly derisive of Dr. Manmohan Singh should be shown the door. The message should go out that no Minister can belittle the Prime Minister in the name of Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi. If the Congress’s Cabinet colleagues themselves cannot show sufficient respect to the office of the Prime Minister, it would be unreasonable to expect allies or the Opposition to be deferential to the prime ministerial office.

As a necessary corollary, the ministerial licence needs to be revoked. It is clear that the policy of ministerial latitude and total absence of prime ministerial oversight have combined to produce deleterious consequences, including unacceptable ethical aberrations. Allies have been allowed to run their ministries as autonomous kingdoms. This arrangement was bound to generate a dysfunctional order, which has culminated in Mamatagate.

If the Congress leadership can produce an internal coherence, it will be easy for it and its government to defang the Mamata Banerjee-induced challenge. The country needs to know that while there will always be imperfections and impurities in the economic growth process, the Congress government, headed by Manmohan Singh, alone has the clarity of its moral integrity and social purpose to cure the system of the Jayaswals, the Kodas, the Mallyas and the Balwas. The country needs to be told that crooks will go to jail, be they indicted in the 2G business or coal blocks allocations. Prudent economic decisions, wise political impulses and ethical sensitivities, mixed judiciously, can help defeat the populist demagogue. The Indian state’s best interests have never been served by appeasement at home or abroad.

(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 8:30:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-opportunity-not-a-crisis/article3915471.ece

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