Indians have been wondering whom to blame for the paralysis that has afflicted their government for the last two years. Time magazine’s cover picture of Manmohan Singh, captioned “The Underachiever”, seems to have made up their minds for them. But granted that Dr. Singh is not a natural leader can one ever, justifiably, pin the blame for the collapse of an entire governmental system on a single person?
In Dr. Singh’s case we need to look all the harder for other explanations because he is the same person who piloted a painless transition from a command to a market economy and, a decade later, brokered the coalition with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party — in the teeth of opposition from the Indian intelligence agencies — that gave the Kashmiris the first government they felt they could call their own. This began the marginalisation of militant separatism in the Valley.
Equally important are the things Dr. Singh prevented from happening. In 2001, the United States responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. In 2002, the NDA responded to the abortive terrorist attack on Parliament by mobilising three quarters of a million soldiers on the Pakistan border. In 2008, Dr. Singh responded to 26/11 by resisting every demand from an enraged public to hit back at Pakistan, and continued to do so even after the terrorists’ phone calls revealed the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence in the attack.
History has vindicated his restraint. The U.S. is stuck in a quagmire from which it has yet to extricate itself; Operation Parakram gained a diplomatic victory for India, but asking the army to mobilise fully for a war that the political leaders never intended to wage sowed the seeds of distrust in the military that have weakened civilian control over it. By contrast, the present warming of relations between our two countries would never have begun had Dr. Singh not exercised extraordinary forbearance in 2008.
Add to all these his authorship of the proposal to resolve the Kashmir dispute by softening and eventually erasing the Line of Control that found favour with President Pervez Musharraf, and the India-U.S. nuclear agreement, and his place in history should have been secure.
Why then is it so much in doubt? The sole answer is the striking contrast between the effectiveness of the first UPA government and the ineffectiveness of the second. Failing to find any other explanation, most analysts have concluded that the change must lie in Dr. Singh himself. However seductive it is to believe that changing the Prime Minister will solve all our problems, the truth is that it will change nothing. The explanation is to be found in the growing dysfunctionality of our political system. UPA-II just happens to be in power when it has come to a head.
A clue to where the problem lies is the fact that nearly all of Dr. Singh’s successes lie in the realm of foreign policy. In this respect, Indian democracy is beginning to resemble the American more and more. Harold Laski may have been the first to note, in his definitive analysis of the American presidency three quarters of a century ago, that the absence of strict party discipline and the ubiquity of cross-voting in the U.S. Congress severely limited the power of the President to pass domestic legislation. It took a crisis of the dimension of the Great Depression of the 1930s to enact the New Deal. It was, therefore, only in foreign policy that U.S. Presidents had been able to exert their full authority.
Dr. Singh has been suffering from a similar liability. During UPA-I, India’s GDP was growing at almost 9 per cent and there was a palpable sense of well-being in the country. The challenges he faced were therefore mostly in the realm of foreign relations, and on related issues like Kashmir. Even during that period, consensus on domestic issues was conspicuous by its absence. The business community frequently expressed the disappointment that Dr. Singh was unable to reform the labour laws and open up key sectors like retail trade and insurance to foreign investment. But since the Congress depended for its survival on the Left, which had never hidden its opposition to these reforms, people did not have to look any further for the causes of its paralysis.
During UPA-II, by contrast, almost all the challenges the government has faced have been domestic: a rapid decline of economic growth , near-stagnation in industry; worsening infrastructure; a resurgence of inflation, now driven by domestic and international shortages; a dramatic worsening of the naxalite menace and a middle class revolt against the corrupt and predatory Indian state. Remedies exist for all of these problems, but all of them will pit the populace against powerful vested interests that have thoroughly infiltrated the state machinery. Only a strong Prime Minister, capable of enforcing discipline on his party and his Cabinet, can push such reforms through. Dr. Singh’s inability to do so may spring to a limited extent from his personality. But a much more self-assertive Prime Minister would have been equally powerless.
The reason is the growing dysfunctionality of Indian democracy. While it is modelled on the British system of Cabinet government, it has failed to capture its spirit. The salient feature of the Cabinet government in Britain is its success in creating a powerful executive without impairing its accountability to the people. Although it is largely modelled on the British, Indian democracy has failed to achieve this synthesis.
The spirit of the British Constitution is enshrined in two underlying conventions that were born of three centuries of struggle for supremacy between the Crown and Parliament. The first is the Prime Minister’s unchallengeable right to dissolve Parliament and the Crown’s obligation to accept his (or her) recommendation. As a constitutional crisis in 1924 showed, this right inheres even in the head of a minority government when faced by a withdrawal of support from its coalition partner. In his classic treatise on British democracy, Cabinet Government , Ivor Jennings described this as the bedrock of party discipline in the U.K.
The second convention is that the parliamentary wing of a political party must enjoy unquestioned ascendancy over its organisational wing. The party, in short, exists to serve the elected representatives of the people, and not the other way about. In fact the term ‘political party’ is not even mentioned in any Constitution that has been modelled on the British — the American, the Canadian, the Australian and the Indian.
In India the first convention was destroyed the very first time it was put to the test when, in 1967, the Congress high command prevented its own chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, D.P. Mishra, from asking for a fresh election when faced by the defection of 31 MLAs to the opposition, and forced him to resign instead. It did this because it was itself organising defections from non-Congress governments in West Bengal, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab.
The refusal led, within months, to the epidemic of floor crossings for power or profit that came to be labelled as the Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram phenomenon. This virtually paralysed the State governments of northern India for two decades till Rajiv Gandhi brought it partly under control with the Anti-Defection Act of 1985.
However, this Act only curbed indiscipline within a political party. The full, deadly, impact of the 1967 denial was felt only when single party dominance gave way to coalition rule at the Centre. Shorn of the power to discipline coalition partners by threatening to make them face the electorate, prime ministers since Narasimha Rao have been forced to rely on “inducements” alone to keep their coalitions together. The proliferation of scams involving political parties has been a direct consequence.
The second convention was challenged repeatedly within the Congress: the first time in 1950 by Purushottam Das Tandon; a second time in 1969 by the ‘syndicate’ under Congress president S. Nijalingappa, and a third time at the AICC meeting at Tirupati in 1992 when a slate of regional leaders tried to capture the Congress Working Committee. On all three occasions, the parliamentary party withstood the challenge and maintained its right to decide policy even though in 1969, Indira Gandhi’s effort destroyed the undivided Congress.
But the supremacy of the parliamentary party over the Congress organisation this established was suddenly destroyed when Sonia Gandhi led the Congress to victory in 2004, then decided not to become prime minister, and then decided nonetheless to direct large chunks of policy from the back seat. The ensuing dyarchy within the Congress robbed the already weakened Prime Minister of control over Cabinet colleagues from his own party. In UPA-II, Pranab Mukherjee emerged as the Czar of finance and P. Chidambaram as that of home affairs. During UPA-I, the Prime Minister’s national security adviser isolated him from the intelligence chiefs. In UPA-II, his principal secretary owes his position not to the Prime Minister but the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi.
Today when Dr. Singh is faced with a choice he cannot tolerate, the only shock he can administer to his party is to offer to resign. This is a card that he already played to make his party accept the Indo-U.S. nuclear treaty. Today, we may need a crisis that sows the fear of defeat in the Congress to restore the primacy of the Prime Minister. The collapse of industrial growth could therefore prove a blessing in disguise.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)