This is beginning to look like a one-sided boxing match. With an interesting and crucial difference: we can clearly make out the boxer who is being walloped—in this case, the government, but the one who’s doing the walloping is not so easily pin-downable. Because, just as it’s coming off the ropes, groaning, the government seems to once in a while deliver an upper cut to its own jaw and sag back again.
The climbdown on foreign direct investment (FDI) in organized retail was an embarrassment, but at least one hoped that this would allow parliament to now function and discuss and pass some Bills. But the parliamentary committee examining the National Identification Authority of India Bill has rejected it and sent it back for re-drafting. The committee, in its report, said that the Bill was “riddled with serious lacunae”, “was conceptualized with no clarity of purpose” and was “being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion”.
CPI MP and panel member Gurudas Dasgupta called the project “unnecessary” and a “total waste of government money”. But it’s not only the Opposition that’s carping. A Congress member of the panel said that the Bill was “unacceptable” in its present form. And the Ministry of Home Affairs has been against Aadhar right from the beginning since it feels it overlaps with its own National Population Registry project.
The committee also rejected the Insurance (Amendment) Bill, which proposed to raise FDI in insurance companies from 26% to 49%. There goes another much-delayed reform move.
Meanwhile, a piledriver blow one arm of the government has aimed at its solar plexus—the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—comes from agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who has written to the Prime Minister that MGNREGA is diverting agricultural labour from farm work during sowing and harvesting seasons, pushing up labour costs and hence food prices. Pawar wants the jobs scheme to be frozen for three months every year, or farm wages subsidized up to 50%, if food inflation has to be tackled effectively.
In a sideshow to this free-for-all, a special CBI Court has allowed wild-card troublemaker Subramanian Swamy to be a witness in his private complaint seeking home minister P. Chidambaram’s prosecution in the 2G scam. Swamy has been claiming that Chidambaram was as complicit in the scam as then-telecom minister A. Raja, who has been cooling his heels in Tihar jail for the last ten months. Naturally, in parliament, the Opposition immediately wanted Chidambaram’s resignation, a demand which was, of course, summarily ignored.
So we have a punch-drunk government weaving and ducking, and not even in a position to guess where the next blow will come from. After all, it was its ally and partner Trinamool Congress which finally scuttled the retail FDI proposal and—just to rub it in—laughed all its way back to Kolkata with a fat Central package for West Bengal. Now the Agriculture Minister wants a review of the NREGA, which the UPA government claims as its proudest achievement. The Home Ministry is against Aadhar, another scheme the government has been promoting actively as the foundation for a totally wired India, which will boost efficiency of delivery of public goods and services dramatically, slash corruption, and be generally beneficial in more ways than you can count on ten fingers.
So the long slow wait for the next Lok Sabha election formally begins this week (finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has been candid enough to say that the government shelved the retail FDI proposal to avoid mid-term polls). Meanwhile, the Gandhi family seems to have decided to stay below the radar for some time. Rahul Gandhi, presumably, is still somewhere in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh, trying to figure out what the unpredictable behenji will come up with next, after her out-of- left-field proposal to break up the state into four, an announcement unexpected and radical enough to drown out noise about all that was wrong in the state.
In the midst of all this, one question: Does anyone feel sorry for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh any more? My guess is that for the vast majority of Indians, the answer would be an unequivocal ‘No’.