Disconnect and denial

Disconnect and denial

Any government in a democracy is the creature of political parties backing it. Very often there are differences between the ruling party and the government, for the party wants to shape the governance agenda for its political benefit. India is witnessing a similar problem today: The ruling party, the Indian National Congress, is today a major source of opposition to the government. On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denied this “disconnect" between the party and the government.

His denial is not credible.

Singh couched his denial in democratic terms by saying that party functionaries and ministers expressing different points of view is not necessarily a bad thing. Such differences do not matter when they don’t cross the lines that hinder governance. In the case of his government, these differences are leading to increasing incoherence in government. The open rift between his home minister P. Chidambaram and Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh on handling ultra-Left extremism is a well-known example. Another instance is that of the conflict over development versus environment and land rights. In this case, such is the pressure from the party today that no minister dare take a contrarian stand.

The reasons for this disconnect are complex. But there is one that is obvious. Most Congressmen today want to tailor government policies in a manner that can help them engineer a political majority in 2014. To that end, populist projects have gained currency over the hard tasks of governance. Key reforms in the labour sector, financial markets and tough law and order measures are being held in abeyance lest they anger the electorate. The present government is seen as a mere “transition". The possibility that a “B" team under a different leadership is waiting in the wings in the party and biding its time can’t be ruled out now. This short-sightedness is at the root of the policy paralysis being witnessed these days.

The Prime Minister tried to put a different and rather disingenuous gloss on this by saying that “I can’t say I will shut up every colleague". He also said that his cabinet had functioned with a “much greater degree of cohesion" than even the first cabinet headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. For someone who has worked in government for so long, this reasoning defies belief. The first Indian cabinet had leaders such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and Vallabhbhai Patel. Their calibre earned them their right to dissent. There is hardly anyone who remotely approaches those men in Singh’s cabinet.

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