Let us not lose sight of good governance

New deal: The country will watch with interest whether the Samajwadi Party-Congress friendship would work itself out at the expense of rule of law and good governance.

New deal: The country will watch with interest whether the Samajwadi Party-Congress friendship would work itself out at the expense of rule of law and good governance.  

Harish Khare

A new political friendship has blossomed between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. Does this new concord come at the expense of ethical expectations? Is the new alignment a licence to settle a few corporate scores?

Just because the Samajwadi Party has decided to accept the former President, Abdul Kalam’s “national interest” certificate does not mean — and cannot mean — that all those who have doubts and reservations over the Indo-American civilian nuclear deal should close shop. A vigorous democratic debate has kept our government and its negotiators on their toes; this vigilance must continue in the days to come, even if the Left has formally withdrawn its support to the Manmohan Singh government.

Also, just because the Samajwadi Party has decided to bail out the United Progressive Alliance government does not mean that all the aberrations and absurdities of the party and its leaders stand dignified. Just as earlier the severity of those shortcomings did not lessen because the Left leaders used to mollycoddle the Samajwadi Party, the wrong-doings do not become any less unacceptable now that it is aligned with the UPA.

Though the immediate provocation for the new Samajwadi Party-Congress understanding is the nuclear deal, the country will watch with interest whether this friendship would work itself out at the expense of the rule of law and good governance. To be fair, perhaps it is rather late in the day to be raising such concerns. We are blessed into the age of coalitions. And the “coalition government is inevitable” formulation has already done serious damage to the principles and practices of good governance. Just as earlier Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to put up with difficult allies and their equally difficult demands, Manmohan Singh too has had to look the other way as many of his ministerial colleagues proclaimed themselves to be answerable only to their own notions of ethical behaviour. Now that the UPA government is dependent upon a set of new allies, will the good doctor himself become indifferent to good governance?

Like all capitals New Delhi thrives on rumours, gossips and innuendoes; and when the media become an institutional partner in this ancient pastime, the political parlours tend to work overtime. And, the greatest guessing game in the capital is the nature of “deal” that has been struck between the Samajwadi Party and the Prime Minister’s establishment.

Even before the “coalition dharma” was used to take liberties with good governance, we had set in place the unfortunate tradition of the government of the day using its coercive powers to punish its presumed adversaries and to provide a few breaks to its proclaimed friends. The UPA government cannot possibly be an exception to this rule. After Ms Mayawati stormed back to power in Uttar Pradesh, the Centre was more than willing to break political bread with her — notwithstanding her record of gross departure from norms and practices. So much so, the Uttar Pradesh Governor denied in June 2007 the Central Bureau of Investigation the requisite permission to proceed with the Taj Corridor investigation. With this immunity under her belt, it did not take long for the Chief Minister to turn hostile to the Congress.

The Bahujan Samaj Party government in Uttar Pradesh itself is not immune to the charge of misuse of the State apparatus to make life difficult for the Samajwadi Party and Congress cadres. Not the one to be slowed down by niceties or by public opinion, Ms Mayawati has gone about her coercive business in such a fashion that she has managed to bring together two staunch political adversaries in a working alliance. It is this aspect that provides the primary basis of a political understanding between the government and the SP — not the concern over the seceding Muslim vote nor the suddenly discovered advantages of the nuclear agreement.

Whatever be the current and future U.P.-centric convergence of interests, should the Manmohan Singh government allow itself into countenancing unethical conduct in public life? To be sure, the government’s new ally and business associates are entitled to fair hearing, honest treatment from law-enforcement agencies — just as they were even before the Congress-Samajwadi rapprochement. In the new context, illegalities and irregularities cannot automatically get rectified; all that the new friendship will possibly ensure is that the taxman remains true to his obligation to be neither vindictive nor indulgent. Similarly, it would be difficult as also unacceptable for the Centre to put a total lid on the CBI investigation into the on-going “disproportionate assets” case against Ms Mayawati. And should the CBI decide to move against the Chief Minister, there would be suspicion and accusations.

More than a handful of individuals’ troubles with the law, the UPA government’s new ally has brought to the fore the rarely discussed corporate dimension of Indian politics. One does not have to subscribe to the notions of class analysis to understand that rivalries and divergences among big business have always caused realignments among political forces and leaders (even newspapers). Almost all the major historical dramatic shifts in Indian politics (like the Congress split in 1969 or the launch of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee project in 1997) can be traced to the big business’ changing compulsions and requirements.

Therefore, the frontal attack on Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Petroleum Minister Murli Deora should have come as no surprise to anyone. If the ruling alliance’s new ally wants to use its status to correct a perceived tilt, we would all be better off. Even in this age of market reforms, the corporate houses are totally beyond the government’s reach; nor are they above wanting to suborn the law and the loyalties; therefore, if the new political alignments in New Delhi are used to bring about a healthy balance, so be it. Irrespective of the dramatis personae, it would provide the much-needed corrective to our public discourse if we are able to debate on the economics and ethics of allowing windfall profits in a country of vast poverty.

At the same time, considerable care would need to be taken to ensure that the government does not become embroiled in the feud between the two Mumbai-based brothers. The Ambani brothers’ quarrels have consumed many senior bureaucrats and political leaders. It would be totally unacceptable if corporate houses are perceived to have become involved in suborning the loyalties of legislators at the national level.

Minimising the corporate houses’ not so healthy influence on the Indian politics would not be all that easy. As it is, the Indian business houses have grown so big and their financial clout so overpowering that the corporate managers can decide — and do decide — who rules many a State government. The decisive role recently played by the Bellary-based mining lobby in ensuring the BJP victory in Karnataka was truly benumbing. Immensely rich State-based entrepreneurs have developed strong ties with regional political leaders. These State-based economic buccaneers now have the advantage of national and international linkages. And as we move towards a national election, the political parties will need to depend more and more on corporate houses for large financial support.

In this time of double-digit inflation, no government, whatever its numerical strength in the Lok Sabha, can be seen to be a prisoner of corporate interests. A democratic government’s first and foremost consideration has to be public interest, which means the welfare and economic security of the vast majority of the Indian population. Unfortunately, a number of Union Cabinet ministers have given the impression that they are beholden first to their corporate friends than to their oath of office. It would be doubly unfortunate if the Manmohan Singh regime and the Congress party allow themselves to be blindsided by powerful corporate players.

Equally important it must be to ensure that the current precariousness and the next Lok Sabha elections are not used to push in a hurry the unfinished agenda of economic reforms. Just because the Left has withdrawn support to the UPA government does not mean that the Right wing in the Manmohan Singh government should have the run of the place, and push through major policy changes. A regime that began its innings as protector of the aam aadmi cannot possibly allow itself to be seen as being in unseemly hurry to oblige business houses. Governments are temporary, public interest is permanent.

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