The foreign hand has been replaced by coalition compulsions as the omnibus explanation for government failure.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeated the old saw over the weekend, telling reporters that his government has been unable to move ahead with economic reforms because he runs a complicated coalition government. As an explanation, this is on the same wavelength as Jayanthi Natarajan’s astonishing claim in November 2010 that former telecom minister A. Raja could not be kept in check because of coalition dharma. Such explanations absolve the Congress of all responsibility.
Running a government with mercurial partners such as Mamata Banerjee is not an easy job. But the Congress has 205 members in the 15th Lok Sabha, 89 members more than the second biggest group in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the previous Lok Sabha, the Congress (141 seats) was a mere four seats ahead of its main rival.
After the 2009 elections, the country was told that a government with a bigger mandate and one that was no longer hitched to the Left would kick-start economic reforms. Several ministries had even presented ambitious 100-day plans, raising hopes among the innocent that a blizzard of reforms was around the corner. Instead, the drought continued and has now scorched our investment climate.
The Congress has always been a party of reluctant reformers. Singh surely knows this. He was the target of nasty personal attacks by the Congress’ old guard when he was finance minister in the government headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao. A few decades earlier, Lal Bahadur Shastri faced an internal backlash when he raised the first tentative questions about the efficacy of the Five-Year Plans.
The main tension in the ruling coalition is not between the Congress and its allies; it is the conflict between the reformers and the Congress Left. The political bosses have no interest in economic reforms. They are enamoured of the idea that a system of legally guaranteed entitlements should be the main thrust of policy. Whether the Indian government has the resources to fund these commitments or the Indian state has the capacity to deliver on the promises are inconvenient details to be swept under the carpet. Singh himself seems to be willing to expend his limited political capital on issues such as the Indo-US nuclear deal and peace talks with Pakistan, rather than economic reforms.
Some of the most vocal opposition to economic reforms during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, a coalition, also came from within the fold, including non-governmental organizations such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. It took Vajpayee’s considerable political skills to push ahead with change.
In a parliamentary system, the buck stops with the Prime Minister. Period.
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