Left is the opposite of right, but it is also the past tense of “leave”. Does the Left in the UPA coalition belong to the past? If so, the Indo-US nuclear deal would have already delivered something good for India. We are not sure of that yet, given the creation of a consultative mechanism between the two allies on the operationalization of the nuclear deal. It sounds as vague as the 123 Agreement with the US itself!
Nonetheless, from the moment he gave the interview to the Kolkata based Telegraph, the Prime Minister had displayed a single-minded commitment to the nuclear deal. The reluctance of the Left to take the dispute with the Congress to its logical conclusion has helped to position the Congress as the centrist party. That is why opinion polls give the Congress more seats if an election were held today and that is why Advani felt it necessary to bring his party to the centre on this issue. The questions that the Congress has to ask itself are whether it has behaved as a centrist party on concerns that occupy Indians’ minds. Why is it that the Prime Minister has not been able to look the Left in the eye on economic reforms as he had dared to do in the case of the Indo-US nuclear deal? After all, he is more closely identified with economic reforms than with foreign policy.
The answer must be that opposition to economic liberalization has been as much from within the Congress as it is from without. His party president has not given him as much leeway on economic reforms as she has on the nuclear deal. That, in turn, has emboldened many Luddites within the party to oppose further liberalization as though poverty eradication and economic liberalization are mutually exclusive. In the end, the Congress has adopted its pre-1991 economic policy. That is to preach or profess by socialism for all, but practise capitalism for a few (e.g., the SEZ policy).
Confusion within the party towards further economic liberalization has prevented it from taking on the Left on such core issues as the pension reforms for which there is agreement across the political spectrum. The Prime Minister has all but abdicated the mantle of the messiah of economic reforms. Energy security, national security and economic prosperity are not mutually incompatible goals. The coalition has tried to address the first one solely through this deal and has failed to address the other two.
Leadership is about paying attention to the first mile and the last miles of the journey. The Prime Minister was clearly there when the journey started substantively in 1991. The last mile is about paying attention to details. Recently, when the Maharashtra government failed to pass the required legislation to scrap the Urban Land Ceiling Act, it fooled no one on the insincerity of its efforts. It may or may not have helped, but a nudge from the Prime Minister the day before—similar to the warning to the Left to take it or lump it—would have signalled the commitment behind its intention to turn Mumbai into an international financial centre. Great leaders make their own occasion. When Rajaji wanted to plead his case for retention of prohibition, he did not wait for the young chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi, to come to his house. He took his own car in pouring rain and drove to Karunanidhi’s house to plead his case with the chief minister. That is passion and commitment.
It might well be the case that the Prime Minister is making his case in private. But the crucial difference that public championing of the cause would make is that it would enthuse and energize millions of others as it would signal the presence of a leader with a cause, with a vision and, more importantly, with a road map. Leadership is all about that: leading from the front. It is never too late to do so.
Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT says that India is absorbing the wrong lessons from China’s growth success. He points out that China grew not because of foreign direct investment (FDI) and infrastructure, but because it had invested in health and education, especially for women. The infrastructure and FDI boom were a consequence and not the cause of growth.
The Indian government must continue to get out of the way of transactions between private citizens and concentrate on things that only it could and it has to do—education and health. In the former, the policy is a tangled, politicized and divisive mess. Getting the priorities right requires the Prime Minister to articulate them clearly first.
The nuclear deal might have helped to position the Congress to the right of the Communist parties. But it is still not a centrist party. For that, the Prime Minister perhaps needs to send a message with an interview to an Italian newspaper.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is head, investment research, Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd in Singapore.These are his personal views and do not represent those of his employer. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org