Last week, India got egg on its face, when the government flip-flopped on its commitment to forge a deal on the sharing of waters of the Teesta river with Bangladesh. It left a sour note on the bilateral engagement between India and Bangladesh. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blamed West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee for the snafu and she promptly returned the favour. This was but just the tip of the iceberg of the business of blame game that has been playing out for most of the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
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When terrorists struck with an improvised explosive device at the Delhi high court, killing 12 people and injuring around 75, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit blamed the power apportioning between the Centre and the state government for the very visible failure to ensure law and order in the capital city (one shudders at the thought of the actual transfer of policing powers to Dikshit’s administration, given its lack of even basic administrative skills to ensure civic amenities to the citizens of Delhi and of course the stellar contribution to the Commonwealth Games, or CWG, disaster).
On Friday, home minister P. Chidambaram reacted and blamed the public works department, which reports to Dikshit, for sand-bagging efforts to put up close-circuit cameras (CCTVs) in the premises of the high court; needless to say that the presence of CCTVs would have provided vital leads to the investigating agencies. True, but what both sides forgot is that the Indian public is shouldering the burden of such failure—regardless of the source.
A similar exchange took place between two other members of the Congress party. Sports minister Ajay Maken claimed that obstructionist tactics by his predecessor, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a vocal opponent of CWG, was the reason why preparations went awry. Let us not even go into Aiyar’s acerbic response; just suffice to say that the country and the city was the loser.
Significantly, all of these examples of blame game is being played out either within the Congress party or among the constituents of the UPA. The ritual also holds good with respect to the political opposition as well as critics of the government (read Anna Hazare).
A belligerent opposition and a government that has turned missteps into a fine art ensured that once again Parliament failed to conduct its scheduled hours of business. The UPA predictably blamed the opposition for the logjam; unless the order has changed, we have been led to understand that the onus of ensuring orderly functioning of Parliament rests with the ruling party.
It gets even more ludicrous. Earlier, the finance ministry and some erudite economists blamed the recent bout of food inflation on the government’s marquee rural employment programme (launched in 2006), arguing that it enhanced the purchasing power of rural India. The reasoning is based on the economic maxim that at low income levels, the marginal propensity to consume is very high; so enhanced incomes have meant a greater demand for food and, thereby, that much more pressure on prices. Another matter now that inflation is occurring more in non-food items, particularly in manufacturing—wonder who is going to be blamed?
Clearly, the sequence and frequency of blame emanating from the government is a cause for worry. It is one thing to apportion blame where it is due, an entirely different thing to employ it as an excuse to justify what is evidently an abdication of responsibility. Almost on every count, whether it be governance, economic management and now internal security, the UPA has been found wanting.
It has a lot to do with the dysfunctional nature of both the government and the Union cabinet (spin masters may deny this, but the cracks are clear and visible). The outcome is that the UPA has completely lost its mojo—though some parts of it are still succeeding in pulling off some policy change—and there is a visible state of drift and policy paralysis. (This is not the first time that either political commentators or Capital Calculus have flagged this concern.)
This has resulted in the creation of an unprecedented vacuum. And, precisely the reason for the spurt in judicial activism and phenomena like Hazare are so readily taking root; critics who attack both trends should note that they are the symptom and not the malaise that needs urgent fixing. The Supreme Court is examining so many aspects of executive failure or overreach that one loses count. If civic society can make such rapid inroads, wherein they force the government to back down, not once, but twice in the last six months, isn’t it possible for other, less national cause-friendly, movements to seize control?
The UPA is, therefore, reacting predictably: play the blame game. It may have helped in deflecting some criticism, but certainly not all of it. And now the errors are compounding rapidly. We are reaching a point where the UPA will have nobody left to blame but itself. Unfortunately, by then it will be too late.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org