Saturday, May 16, 2009

The (relatively) good guys won

A recent US president said of the opposition: "They misunderestimated me." Manmohan Singh could well have said the same, only in correct English.

In 1991, this soft-spoken gentleman, who had been both an academic and a bureaucrat, was invited by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao to be finance minister in his cabinet. He embarked on a programme of economic liberalisation that sparked a boom, which continued through several administrations until the global meltdown of the past year. Nonetheless, liberalisation was not politically popular; Rao lost the next election, in 1996.

In 2004, he was sprung on the public at the last minute, after Sonia Gandhi declined prime ministership despite having led the Congress-led coalition to an unexpected victory. She did not want to court controversy over her citizenship; she believed Singh to be a capable leader; and, very likely, she thought he would be the better prime minister.

In 2009, he was promoted from the start of the Congress campaign as their candidate for prime minister. The public was asked, effectively, to choose between him and L. K. Advani. This is no longer 1996. The public chose Singh, overwhelmingly.

Because of his soft-spoken nature he has attracted charges of being weak, a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, and a temporary substitute for Rahul Gandhi. L K Advani attacked him viciously during the 2009 campaign, but it seems to have backfired. In fact, during his tenure, Singh pushed through the Right to Information Act, which he saw as one of the most important ways to improve transparency; he broke ranks with the Left to push through the nuclear cooperation deal with the US, and personally intervened with other parties (including some quite unsavoury politicians) to ensure that his government continued to have the support to last its full term; and, meanwhile, he let the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul, focus on rebuilding the Congress party from the grassroots.

Here's a recent article by his former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, who reveals how often Manmohan Singh quietly got his way and how rarely he took credit for it: even in the case of the nuclear deal, he was willing to let the Left take credit for amendments if they supported it! As things turned out, Prakash Karat was obdurate and Singh (with the party's support) decided that the Left's support was dispensable.

The strategy of letting Singh govern the country and Sonia and Rahul Gandhi govern the party has paid off handsomely. Rahul's go-it-alone strategy has revitalised the Congress party in the north; troublesome allies and opponents have been marginalised, the Left is in tatters, and the BJP is on the back foot and unsure of what ideology to present the public. A new youthful generation of Congress leaders seems to be emerging to take over from the next election. And the public has marked their approval of the Congress's governance over the past five years.

Now that the ruling coalition has earned this "political capital", as the Americans call it, they must spend it wisely. Much needs to be reformed, in our economy, our bureaucracy, our educational system, and especially our judiciary. I don't expect miracles but I do expect an effort, especially now that the obstructionist Left are sidelined. And the rewards, for the Congress, could well be an even greater mandate in 2014.


Mercury said...

I really like this post of yours. Firstly, because I agree with everything you've said. Second, because it is measured, moderate and yet assured.

I,for one,am quite glad with the result. I think, as you quite rightly said, the onus is now on the Congress to live up to enormous responsibility being handed to them. I hope they do.

Anonymous said...

I think you've given Manmohan a tad more credit than he deserves. The Right to Information (RTI) movement was a people's movement, led primarily by MKSS (Aruna Roy and others). Congress had nothing to do with it. Rest assured, if there hadn't been such relentless pressure from people's groups for years on end, RTI wouldn't have been enacted, no matter which party was in power. Likewise with the NREGA (as envisaged by Jean Dreze and others, not the Congress).

Secondly, the agricultural crisis in India has reached alarming levels. The PMs intervention in Vidarbha was abominably, too little too late.

The point I'd like to make is that the Congress seems to have benefited enormously from many of their progressive legislations, especially as they impact the rural poor, but it would be a fallacy to attribute these to the Congress. Sure the Congress co-opted this agenda, but only after immense pressure.

But I agree with the general thrust of your post (differences are only in nuance).

I do get a feeling that contrary to what is being bandied about in the media, the mandate is a sign to be cautious in pursuing the neo-liberal agenda without checks and balances. In this sense its a pity that the Left is so brain-dead in India. Not to say anything of the Right ....

gaddeswarup said...

Wikipedia entry on Sonia Gandhi says:
"As chairperson of the National Advisory Committee and the UPA chairperson, she played an important role in making the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Right to Information Act into law."

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Mercury: thanks.

Sacredfig: as Gaddeswarup says.

Also, people's movements demanding it is one thing; a government implementing it is another. Especially with something like RTI, where all those in power want to watch for their own backs.

Anonymous said...

@Rahul and gaddeswarup:

Its not as though the Congress wants to watch its back any less than the others.

To restate what I said, "Sure the Congress co-opted this agenda, but only after immense pressure."

To reiterate my general point: 1)The Congress party did not come up with the idea of RTI. 2)It, like most political parties, was not interested in it and in many cases was reluctant to implement it (e.g., Arvind Kejriwal and Parivartan's efforts in Delhi - a Congress state).

From the two points above, I cannot see how the implementation of the RTI is to the Congress' credit. An unwilling donkey might somehow be forced to carry a load from point A to point B. Its hardly to the donkey's credit, however. In the end its a relief !

I am still mildly satisfied with the Congress winning, but much of the progressive agenda in India is realized inspite of mainstream political parties, not because of them.

Szerelem said...

Agree with most of what you have said - mostly I am happy to have woken up on the 16th to find that I was not in the BJP's India.
The ridiculous campaign they ran and their turning a complete blind eye and deaf ear to Varun Gandhi's vulgar and hateful trite was beyond disgusting.

I do hope the Congress - with this mandate - does a much, much better job this term that it has over the past five though.

Side notes: the sycophancy is already in full show... I couldn't help but agree with Mukul Kesavan that seeing people like Jyotiraditya Scindia et al fawning over Rahul Gandhi saying he should take up the PM's post, makes one almost wish the Congress had ended up with a few fewer votes.

Terribly happy about the RJD's terrible show. Though would like to see the JD (U) join the UPA.

km said...

Off-topic (just a little), but Mr. Singh is both as a decent man and a well-informed man. Which makes his silence over the Binayak Sen case even more curious: does he not know or does he not care?

gaddeswarup said...

Possibly off topic and possibly conflict of interest (I helped publishing in India Rahul Banerjee's book "Recovering the lost tonue: The saga of environmental struggles in Central India"). There is discussion of RTI on pages 246-248, 298 of the book. From page 248:
"The Right to Information Act was finally passed by Parliment in 2005 after some high drama behind the scenes. Aruna used her membership of the National Advisory Council to impress upon Sonia Gandhi the need to get the draft formulated by the National Capaign on RTI passed, instead of the toothless one drafted by the bureaucrats. Both these ladies carried the day in the face of stiff opposition by bureaucrats...."
Of course this may be just Rahul's view. I have been living abroad for a long time and do not really know the sequence of events and the mobilizations.

revathi said...

Parliamentary acts will only be effective if they get implemented correctly! We have the likes of azhagiri in the lok sabha- I am sorry to say. It is all very well for Manmohan and Sonia to remain squeaky clean but they should pay attention to the criminal records of the UPA memebers. A guy who threatens to kill is still better than a real killer.

Anonymous said...

NREGA was pushed through by left despite a relatively reluctant congress at that point. I doubt if congress would have won minus NREGA and RTI and the role that left had to play in getting these through. Tagging lefts role as obstructionist is over simplification.Though they are paying the price for their neoliberal policies/croony capitalism in West Bengal.As far as the point about liberalisation is concerned ,it was electorally unpopular simply because it did'nt work for most Indians.
Coming to Manmohan Singh,
Its a dangerous precedent if the Prime minister of a country does not even care for a popular mandate or seek to run for elections.Its reducing politics to mere administration corporate style. Pushing through a nuclear deal with the aide of those amoral fixers from UP was no good precedent for democracy either.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

szerelem -- yes, the sycophancy is a bit sickening, but I think that is one reason why Rahul G is keeping away from the cabinet. I'm beginning to respect the guy. About JD(U), it seems you're getting your wish.

km -- I agree, I wish Manmohan would take a personal interest in the case. But he probably thinks that, in this specific case where the high court has denied bail and the supreme court is in the process of hearing the matter, he can't intervene. One's best hope is that, if the SC rules in favour of Sen and especially if it passes strictures on the state government, then the centre can step in on the whole approach to tackling anti-Naxalism.

gaddeswarup -- I'm sure you are right: it required political will as well as social activism to push through RTI and NREGA. I did not sufficiently credit Sonia Gandhi.

revathi - from Manmohan's previous courting of SP after parting ways with the left, I think he is pragmatic in his approach: he wants to get some jobs done, regardless of whose parliamentary support he gets. Ridding our political system of criminals is not going to be an easy task.

anonymous: I'm not convinced at crediting the left for NREGA. Or at blaming their losses on "neo-liberalism" in WB alone. They lost everywhere.

Anonymous said...

All very well ! But when, O when, will we be rid of the holy trinity of hyperventilating twits on Indian TV - Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami?

Governments come and they go, the dice rolls on one way or another, but these three shrill sycophantic dimwits just carry on and on. Three little itches that just won't go away!

I imagine heaven as a place where this holy trinity receives continual, unending enema !

Anonymous said...

So many wonderful assumptions

First it shd be
The better among the worst one!

on SG
she believed Singh to be a capable leader
Sorry the word should be a leader in her control.
He himself has said he will quit anytime for rahul baba..

A new youthful generation of Congress leaders seems to be emerging to take over from the next election.
Sorry 40+ baba and babys of old leaders arnt really youthful are they?

Too much credit being given to baba and mms
Noone is talking of the new three
Mns - vjaykant and chiranjeevi whose vote cutting got congress the seats

Is there real division between state and party aka the us?
i doubt ... but time will tell