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Byline By M.J.Akbar: Glass is Half Empty
In a democracy it makes much more sense to believe that the glass is half-empty rather than half-full. It is the empty part of the glass that determines election results. The half-full section chatters and pontificates. The other half votes.The best thing that Mrs Sonia Gandhi has done in the fifteen months of the present Parliament is to lead the passage of the rural employment guarantee scheme for 200 economically backward districts. It is the government of Dr Manmohan Singh which will pass this legislation and find the money for it. But the identification in the popular mind will be with Mrs Gandhi. Opposition parties have had the sense not to oppose the measure, and quibbles will not help them. It might mean only a meagre hree rupees a day, as Nitish Kumar pointed out, but it is three rupees more than he provided when in power for six years.
Facts don’t change. But the way you look at them makes a critical difference. The NDA gave wide currency to its claim that it had reduced the number of Indians below the poverty line from over 400 million to some 300 million. If, instead of advertising that as an achievement it had repositioned the fact as a challenge and as a national disgrace (which it is; try explaining the meaning of freedom to those who cannot find enough to eat), it might have connected better with the country. There is a difference between the constituency of a political party and the constituency of a government. The best politicians know the difference,and also know how to improvise a median between the two. A party’s political base is, very accurately, partisan; a government must reach out to the country, including those who did not vote for it. The disadvantaged, whether they be poor or insecure, cannot be sliced out of the safety net or the attention span simply because they do not support the political parties that form a government.
The rural employment guarantee restores populism to centre-stage. Ironically, it was Dr Manmohan Singh as finance minister in 1991 who convinced the country that populism had extracted too heavy a price. He would have argued in the Nineties that before you can be paying for jobs, you had to create jobs, and that an exchequer cannot pay for mythical work. This is good theory, but not practical politics, except in a dictatorship. China can afford to be stringent because the party of the people doesn’t have to bother about the vote of the people. Even the most capitalist economies buy peace with their disadvantaged through fiction. What else is the dole, or the unemployment benefit, in the West? The state, using tax revenues, takes the responsibility for the inability of the economy to provide full employment. The government robs Peter to pay Paul to prevent Paul from turning violent and wrecking the peace without which neither Peter nor the government can survive.
The problem in India is not populism but corruption and its first consequence, mismanagement. The carcasses of a dozen schemes similar to this lie in the files of the Government of India, waiting to receive an honest funeral. No one has the courage to inter them, and so they continue to increase the waste that clings to the annual budget. Money is siphoned off by middlemen, for the poor, by definition, are helpless. Once the initial euphoria wears off, the schemes join the long list of promises that failed and become counter-productive with the very voter they were meant to woo. Experience has made them cynical, and the poor hate being cheated, or patronised, or politically exploited: the anger against the free distribution of saris by the BJP before the last general elections was a spark from a much larger conflagration.
If the Congress therefore wants to convert populist measures into political capital, then it must do so while they remain popular, before time and venality have turned the sheen into rust. Logically speaking, if there is a guaranteed employment scheme in August, can general elections be far behind?
Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s window of opportunity is open. The once-lustrous image of the government has dimmed for the usual reasons, but its credibility has not yet eroded beyond repair. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh remains the biggest asset of is government. But a few more controversies over tainted ministers, a rap or two from the Supreme Court over malfeasance in Bihar, some more horrific indifference while Mumbai drowns and its hinterland dies, and there won’t be much of a tale to tell. Moreover,there is still enough buoyancy in the idea of a coalition that keeps the BJP out of power.This is critical glue for the core to hold.The battle in the next general elections is not going to be for a simple majority.That is out of reach. The definition of victory this time is between 180 to 200 seats.The rest will fall in place.
Critical to Congress hopes is the fact that the BJP is in trouble wherever it is in power.This has very little to do with Jinnah.The weight of incumbency is a difficult burden for any party, and impossible to bear for a party that is floundering.The Congress can easily add to its numbers in Madhya Pradesh,Rajasthan and Gujarat if elections are held in the next few months. But the BJP’s problems cannot be a permanent fact. If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is a lifetime. Rebirth is a natural law of Indian politics.The Congress should know that much.
The economy is still in reasonable shape.The real voter does not measure the health of the economy by the share market, but by the vegetable market.The inflationary pressure of fuel prices cannot be controlled by unlimited government subsidies. Retail prices are already rising in the United States and Europe, and there is no hope of any downward turn in oil rates particularly since George Bush has decided that one Iraq is insufficient to cloud his presidency and he should goad Iran owards a confrontation as well.(If the United States does move against Iran,its war will be in a contiguous zone from the east of Damascus to the west of Islamabad.There will be spillover on all sides. Maybe defence minister Pranab Mukherjee was aware of this when he signed the defence pact with Donald Rumsfeld.) Why take a risk with the vegetable market?
Then there is the enormous value of pre-emption. A patch-up coalition government is always in a state of temporary truce. Mrs Sonia Gandhi not only has to worry about the sudden emergence of a Third Front, but also flakes from her own party floating towards new directions. (If Shankersinh Vaghela does unite with Keshubhai Patel to form a regional party in Gujarat it would finish, at least for one election, both the BJP and the Congress.)
The alternative is to let sleeping coalitions lie. If only they would lie in peace we might even accept the lies necessary to sustain that peace. This is what the seniors in the Congress, enjoying a late-life lottery win, would like. It is not a prescription for the future.Once the politics of Delhi would impact on the states; today the politics of every state impacts on Delhi. Whatever the results in Bihar, there will be ensuing tremors in Delhi. Pranab Mukherjee is trying to bring Mamata Banerjee back into the Congress, which will not endear the Congress to the CPI(M). A shift in Gujarat could echo in Delhi. Such rifts can be papered over, but they do not add up to sustainable governance. A window of opportunity does not remain open or too long.By this time next year the window could be shut by the force of tomorrow’s storms.The Congress has the chance of turning a fortuitous coalition into a stable alliance.It is up to the party to seize what is visible instead of wandering into a gathering fog.