Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Disgusting Churlishness

What can one say about Sushma Swaraj’s remark that the blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad were to divert attention from the cash for votes scandal, and that it was a ploy to raise a bogey about the BJP to woo back the Muslims whom the Congress had alienated because of the nuclear deal. Bilge, as a friend, Sunil Varma, describes it. When, in 2004, she threatened to shave her head and sleep on the floor if Sonia Gandhi became Prime Minister, it was just very funny (not the least because she became the butt of ribald jokes by journalists even as they were waiting for the BJP briefing to start at the party headquarters). But this is not funny. It is disgusting. It is sickening.

What it brings to mind is the United States immediately after the 9/11 attacks and former President Bill Clinton immediately declaring all support for incumbent President George Bush. No finger pointing, no blame game. Dignified support. Bush’s post-9/11 policies may be attacked by the Democrats but at the time of crisis, there was no name-calling.

What’s surprising is how the BJP is not distancing itself from her remarks, with its top leaders preferring to keep quiet. Are we to believe, then, that the party endorses her views?

But why blame Swaraj alone? She has only taken to an extreme and disgusting degree what all our politicians are adept at – blame the other party, especially the ruling party, for everything that goes wrong. So what if when your party was in power you did exactly what the present one is doing. We are all reacting now because of the words she used, but after every blast in any state, there is an immediate cry from the opposition in that state that the government has failed in its duty and should resign. So every time there is a blast the BJP will accuse the Congress of going soft on terror (forgetting what it did in the Kandahar hijack case) and every time there is a communal riot when the NDA is ruling, the Congress will blame the BJP for it. This cuts across politicians and parties. What can you do with a bunch of politicians who politicise even the Nithari killings and the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case?

Look at economic policy. Economic policy has a strongly political angle to it, but how can stands change depending on where a party is sitting –the ruling or the opposition benches? But that is precisely what happens. The NDA is now saying it will not support the pending economic reform legislation in Parliament. This is absolutely ridiculous, especially since the BJP-led NDA had done the groundwork for many of the legislations.

There are so many examples of opportunistic flip flops. The BJP opposed the opening up of the insurance sector when it was in the opposition. When it came to power, it passed the required legislation. Yashwant Sinha, as NDA finance minister, worked really hard to get the VAT system in place. He couldn’t complete it for various reasons. But minute the NDA loses the elections, he starts opposing the implementation of VAT. When the NDA makes a success of the privatisation programme, Manmohan Singh, as an opposition member, questions the ideological basis of a policy that he himself initiated when he was finance minister. As opposition leader in Punjab Amarinder Singh lambasted the Akali Dal’s freebies, especially free power to farmers. A few years after becoming chief minister, he himself did the same. One could go on and on with similar examples.

There’s another curious phenomenon – don’t take the same view as your opponent, even if the view is something you believe in. Take the dilemma of the Left in the run up to the trust vote. They were worried at being seen as voting with the BJP. If you strongly believe in something, does it matter that your arch enemy also believes in it and will you stop fighting for it just because of that? So the issue on which you withdrew support to the government suddenly became less important than being seen to be on the same side as a party you hate?

That is the only problem I had Omar Abdullah’s otherwise stupendous speech, especially his statement - `they (the left) want me to side with the BJP and bring down this government’. Does that mean that tomorrow if the BJP does something which is right in his opinion, he will keep quiet about it or oppose it just because the BJP is also on that side?

This is childishness, nay, churlishness. And when it plumbs to the level Swaraj took it to, it is. . . . words fail me.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Reforms RIP

So the Left has finally withdrawn support. In any other circumstance, that would have been reason to celebrate. But if its place is going to be taken by the Samajwadi Party batting for one industrial house (see my previous posts below) then there's not much cause to cheer. One blackmailer has been replaced by another. The latest is that Mulayam Singh wants his nominee for the post of CBI Director. The more things change, as they say....

What's amusing is the unanimous reaction that this will help revive the stalled economic reforms process. True, the Left has been the most strident of the opponents of economic reform, but it would be wrong to say that the Communists the only opponents of liberalization. There are many others who will not allow crucial reforms to be effected. These sections are not just ideologically driven political parties but a slew of vested interests - politicians (cutting across the political spectrum), bureaucrats, middlemen (who operate through politicians). The Left has been stupid in revelling in the label of anti-liberalisers. It has generated all the sound and the fury, but its opposition has been less effective than that of these groups, who have operated quietly in the background and let the Comrades take all the blame. To that extent, the Left has allowed its principled opposition to be used by manipulators.

The Left was hardly in the picture during the six years of the BJP-led NDA rule. But still a lot of reforms were stalled (though that government did manage to get far, far more done than the UPA has). Some of the stalling was done by parties that are part of the UPA now.

Remember also, that there is a sizeable section within the Congress that is opposed to any liberalisation. The socialist lobby within that party - Arjun Singh, Mani Shankar Aiyar, are its more well known members - can hardly be discounted.

The process of economic liberalisation reduces government meddling in the economy. In doing that, it also removes the power of patronage from politicians and bureaucrats and reduces the scope of corruption. It also reduces the role of middlemen. So all these groups are hurt by economic reforms, far more than the poor are (actually reforms are the only way to help the poor, but how and the costs will have to be the subject of another post). But it is in the name of the poor that the reforms are stalled. Then, of course, there is industry. Every established player in a business wants to restrict competition - the essence of market-driven economic policies - so that it enjoys a monopoly.

Let's look at a few pending economic reforms.

Agriculture. The economy's largest private sector is also the most regulated one. Sure the sector needs a heavy dose of public investment, but it also needs an equally strong dose of market-oriented economic reforms. The current policy regime, the large farmers benefit more than the small and marginal ones, who are in a pitiable state. One of the key reforms is the relaxation of the state-level Agricultural Produce and Marketing Committee Acts to allow competitive markets to come up. But that will significantly reduce the clout of the arthias and get farmers a fair return for their produce. So movement on this is slow. The arthias and the large farmers are the ones with money and clout in the rural areas. They are the ones who can bankroll politicians; not the small farmers in whose name the politicians act.

Privatisation. Why the government needs to be running a whole lot of businesses - airlines, hotels, to name the more ridiculous ones - is beyond understanding. The opposition to privatisation comes from powerful employees' unions (many of them affiliated to communist parties, yes) as well as politicians and bureaucrats. It is no secret that politicians and bureaucrats milk PSUs. The existence of PSUs also gives them power and patronage. All these will disappear once they are privatised. Recall that the so-called liberaliser Chandrababu Naidu had no compunction in opposing the privatisation of Rashtriya Ispat during the NDA regime because the PSU is located in Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and he didn't want to face the political backlash of people being rendered unemployed (never mind that a handsome VRS package was built into all privatisation deals).

Retail. Don't for a moment think that only the Left is opposed to the entry of foreign retailers. Large domestic retailers are working behind the scenes to ensure that Walmart and Carrefour and Tesco don't come in. There is also the small retailers lobby which is now opposing all organised retail. Small retailers form a large chunk of the BJP's support base, so opposition will come from there too.

Freeing up petroleum pricing. The NDA initiated the dismantling of the administered pricing mechanism in line with the Kelkar committee report. But it was NDA petroleum minister Ram Naik who started meddling in pricing again. Of course, Mani Shankar Aiyar carried it further. Petroleum products pricing is a highly emotive issue and few politicians are willing to see reason on this. Opposition to this will come regardless of who is in power and whether or not the Left is supporting the government.

Aviation. Foreign airlines cannot invest in Indian airlines (though foreign funds can) or operate in the local market. Yes, the Left is behind this. So are powerful Indian airlines owners.

Foreign investment in media (my industry). Again something the Left is vocal about. But powerful media groups will not allow this.

But above all, remember, this is an election year. Despite clear evidence that sensible economic policies reap political dividends, no party is prepared to take hard decisions in the run up to elections. In the mid-1990s, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh stopped the reforms process they initiated in 1991, because the Congress lost several state assembly elections and this was blamed on reforms. The NDA in its last year in government removed a sensible finance minister like Yashwant Sinha and stalled reforms. This government will do the same.

So it hardly matters if the Left supports the government or not. Reforms will go into a limbo till the next general elections.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Nuked by Ambanis

DNA today has a story on the three demands of Amar Singh – an immediate ban on export of petro-goods by private oil companies; a “fair and transparent’’ policy regime to make spectrum available to telecom companies; rework the dollar-rupee exchange rate.
The first is designed to hit Mukesh Ambani and the second to directly benefit Anil Ambani. This only reinforces my belief (see the previous post) that the nuclear deal is not worth this kind of compromise. What’s the point of saying the government won’t be held hostage by the left and then agree to be held hostage by a corporate house?

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Hypocritical compromising

Vir Sanghvi is bang on when he says in his column Counterpoint today, “there is a certain paradox involved in saying that you are taking a moral stand on the (nuclear)deal and then going, cap in hand, to those paragons of virtue Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh.” The Samajwadi Party is not supporting the government because it feels the nuclear deal is in the national interest but because it wants a whole lot out of the Congress.

Finance minister P Chidambaram’s second tenure as finance minister may not have been as great as the first (I am not very knowledgeable about the petroleum ministry, so can’t comment on Murli Deora’s performance) but to sacrifice them or to take decisions on taxing certain industries at the asking of a regional party just to save the government is ridiculous. I am fairly sure that the SP has struck some unholy deal with the Congress if not these specific ones. If Manmohan Singh wants to take the moral high ground on the nuclear deal, this is hardly the way to go about it.

I did not have very strong views on the nuclear deal but I feel if this is the price we have to pay for it, then Indian public life is better off without it.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Our Venal Politicians

I though M K Pandhe’s remarks about Muslims and the nuclear deal was the desperate rantings of a rabble-rouser from a party full of them. And that others would refrain from such outrageous statements. But clearly our politicians love disappointing those who have any expectations of them. Now others are also picking up the refrain. First, one newspaper reported an anonymous Congress leader worrying about the Muslim fallout. Then Mayawati goes to town about how the nuclear deal is anti-Muslim. And now the Samajwadi Party (which, incidentally, told Pandhe that it didn’t need a certificate of secularism from the CPM) is supposed to be worrying about the Muslim reaction! All the television channels are going on about how the SP is trying to find a via media between saving the government and not alienating its Muslim votebank.

Has anyone asked the Muslims what they really feel? But this is the problem with our political parties – they just assume the role of spokespersons for entire communities. So the BJP decides that it is the sole protector of Hindu interests and the Left, the SP and Ram Vilas Paswan’t Lok Janshakti Party and Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal claim to be the only ones speaking for the Muslims and the poor, while Mayawati has assumed the role of saviour of the Dalits, even though many Dalits may be cringing at her tactics and a lot of it is about uplift of her own family than of Dalits in general.

What is also worrying is the SP cosying up to the Congress. If it does save the government in the event of the Left withdrawing support, it will want its pound of flesh. What will it be? The ostensible reason will be keeping `communal forces’ at bay (though why all those playing the Muslim card escape the `communal’ tag beats me). But the SP is hardly a party which functions on the basis of principles and ideals alone. There will be some hard bargaining on personal issues as well – not raking up cases, protection from Mayawati’s harassment, remaining a silent spectator to corruption by SP leaders. Let no one be fooled that this is about the nuclear deal alone. Amar Singh going to meet the National Security Adviser to understand the deal is all drama.

Today’s Times of India reports that among the SP’s wishlist is removal of the finance minister, petroleum minister, Reserve Bank governor and India’s ambassador to the US. This is downright ridiculous and I hope Manmohan Singh has the courage to say no. The problem is this time he may be under a lot of pressure from within the Congress to succumb. This is a small price to pay for a few more months in power. A stray thought – in making these demands, is the SP really acting on its own or is it somehow putting forward demands from the Left?

Why only the SP? What can one say to Ajit Singh, head of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, who was on television saying the opposition to the nuke deal is not on merits but is political. Does he think no one sees through the fact that his belated support is also political – with an eye on garnering Congress support? This is a man who goes along with every coalition government that comes to power at the Centre (and always becomes a minister) and he wants us to believe that he is in favour of the deal because of the merits. There’ll be some hard bargaining on his part, be sure.

Everybody is just fishing in troubled waters for their own gains.

Like it is happening in the case of Jammu and Kashmir over the land for Amarnath yatra pilgrims. Yesterday, I got an SMS about how Muslims are opposing the temporary shelter for Amarnath pilgrims, so why should Hindus put up with a Haj terminal at the Indira Gandhi International Airport as well as Haj subsidies. It was sent by a friend but it must have been a forward and must have had its origins in some radical Hindu group. Anyway, that is neither here nor there.

The point is that these kind of sentiments are bound to grow given the mishandling of the entire issue and its exploitation by unscrupulous political groups. General S K Sinha, the former governor of Jammu and Kashmir, who is credited with the proposal to use forest land for facilities for the pilgrims, has said in an interview today that this was supposed to be a temporary facility for two months only, but that this fact is being ignored. He says the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) created trouble for its own political ends. Sinha is seen to be a BJP sympathiser. But keeping that aside, has anyone bothered to check if what he said is true. If it is, then shouldn’t that be explained to the people? Surely, ordinary Muslims in Kashmir, who have never been hostile to the yatra, would have understood? If he is lying, then surely he should be exposed. But nobody has bothered to do either.

The role of the PDP is not above suspicion. The marriage between the PDP and the Congress in Kashmir was always an uneasy one. So I have little doubt that the PDP has played some mischief here. So has the BJP, which has no doubt instigated the Hindu protests. But the BJP wouldn’t have had to work too hard for that. The spark had already been lit and it only had to do some clever and cynical fanning.

As we head for elections, these are extremely worrying signs.