Thursday, 10 December 1998

Reviving the Congress Virtues of the Bitter Pill

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

Two years ago, a close friend suffered a heart attack. His family,
members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, refused to pollute his body
with medication, relying instead on prayer. In most cases of
illness, the natural resistance of the human body is enough to
overcome the ailment. After a period of sickness, recovery and
regeneration take place naturally. In my friend's case, this did
not happen, the damage having been too extensive. As a
consequence, despite the prayers conducted round the clock, he
passed away.

The recent deliberations within the Congress Working
Committee suggest that the party's highest policy-making group
too believes in natural regeneration. After a year in which the
party has been defeated in state after state, the 'prescriptions’
suggested by the CWC amount in effect to prayers that a miracle
will take place. The maladies afflicting India's ruling party are
all too visible. The necessary remedies are available, whether
medicinal (changes in policies and improvements in their delivery)
or surgical (excision from decision making levels of individuals
who have been identified as liabilities). However, rather than
tackling the ailments squarely and administering the medicine,
relief is being sought in exhortations and platitudes about the
need to 'help' the poor.

Photo Opportunities
That there are actually poor people in India, and that it is part
of the tasks of an elected government to help them, appears to
have been a recent discovery. Until the Karnataka and Andhra
Pradesh verdicts, the assumption was that the lower strata of the
population would wait patiently for the benefits from the expected
flood of foreign direct investment to percolate down to them.
Our national leaders availed of photo opportunities with one
foreign delegation after the other; graciously discussing how
best India could be integrated into the global economy.
Regrettably, similar media exposure to meetings on how to
reduce inflation or unemployment have been sadly lacking.
Obviously, such events were not deemed glamorous enough to
be highlighted.

Whether it is Sharad Pawar’s invitation to Manmohan Singh
to inaugurate the Congress campaign in Maharashtra, or
Narasimha Rao’s talk of the torrent of dollars soon to flood India,
a conviction has developed that a message welcomed by the
well-heeled in New York or Bombay would prove equally
enticing to those eking out a living in slums and shantytowns
across the country. A farm pricing policy that puts huge incomes
in the pockets of the minority of farmers with significant
marketable surpluses was thought attractive enough to the small
farmers and landless labourers, who would presumably have
been elated at contributing to national welfare by purchasing
foodgrains at higher and higher prices. Naturally, food stocks
with the FCI needed to increase, because too big an influx of
grains into the market would depress prices and upset those who
looked upon Balram Jakhar as their saviour. 

Economic Reform
Under its past leaders, the Congress party retained its base by
sleight—of—hand: professing concern for the poor while taking
care of the concerns of the affluent. To Narasimha Rao’s credit,
he has abandoned such hypocrisy and squarely backed a policy
of welcoming foreign investment. Indeed, after decades in which
entrepreneurs were treated like criminals (at least in public), the
Rao government has put economic activity at the forefront of its
policies. As a consequence, even the CPM has had to change its
public stance and welcome capital, whether Indian or foreign.
Now that he has once again been entrusted with the governance
of his state, it is likely that even Laloo Prasad Yadav will begin
to make encouraging noises about investment.

As long as the Central government is in the control of a party
committed to fiscal responsibility, there is a limit to the damage
that can be done to the economic structure by state governments
that favour intervention in the form of subsidies to favoured  
sectors. The danger that investment would turn away from
problem states and go to more responsible ones will help to
moderate regional populism, one reason why both Deve Gowda 
in Bangalore and Manohar Joshi in Bombay made clear soon 
after taking over that business-friendly policies would not get
jettisoned. ln the case of Karnataka at least, the new government
appears to have stolen a march on the old one by prompt
approvals and follow—up action. States like Tamil Nadu, where
political fund collection may have become the primary goal of
public policy, are losing projects as a consequence.

However, the picture would change radically were the
Central administration to fall into the control of a group of
political parties with disparate interests. The temptation to resort
to the mint for financing favoured schemes would be great, and 
difficult to resist. Today within the Congress party there are only
individuals trying to demonstrate through one-up—manship their
deeper commitment to the public interest. In a coalition, not
individuals but political parties would try to poach on the
other’s base. In place of a competition in responsible behaviour,
there would be one in populism. It is no accident that most
successful regimes have a clear central focus of authority. When
such leadership gets diffused through viable internal threats,
governance suffers.

Therefore, there is truth in the assertion of Narasimha Rao's
supporters that the open criticism of him by Arjun Singh and
others has strengthened the hands of the opposition. One of the 
few remaining strengths of the Congress party has been its image 
of stability, in contrast to the constant breaK—ups and realignments
in the Janata Dal. By containing Arjun Singh’s revolt, the Congress
leadership has preserved this image. However, while this may
be regain public support, it is not nearly enough.
The major ailment afflicting the Congress party is a perceived
tolerance of corruption, and an insensitivity to the concerns of 
the poor. Mere prayer - in the form of declamations of concern
for probity and the disadvantaged — are not strong enough
medicine for a disease that has struck at the very roots. Remedies,
in the form of action, are needed. 

Impact of Corruptions
Reform of the economic structure cannot be carried out in
isolation from reform of the structures of government. If TADA
could be promulgated against terrorist acts (it was another
matter that it was misused in states like Gujarat to extort funds),
a similar legislation can be brought forward against administrative
misfeasance. The present cumbersome legal procedures need to
be replaced with quicker processes for identifying and punishing
officials found guilty of abusing the trust placed in them. The
impact of corruption on the body politic is at least as pernicious
as that of terrorism, but one will have to go through the jails with
a fine tooth comb before locating individuals who are there on
being found guilty of corruption. The sight of a dozen senior
public servants being punished with jail terms would do more
for Narasimha Rao’s party than several hundred strong
resolutions passed in Congress fora.

There is a constant refrain that Prime Minister Narasimha
Rao is "indecisive". And yet, it is this same "indecisive" individual
who freed Indian industry from its many shackles, rectified
some foreign policy errors by establishing diplomatic ties with
Israel, and pushed through elections in Punjab. Where he has
been slow — indeed, frozen — is in cleansing his party and his
administration of elements that make a mockery of the pledge of
clean and efficient government. If his party is to survive its
coming tryst with the electorate, the Prime Minister will have to
stop confining himself to presiding over prayers at the patient’s
bedside, and effectively use the scalpel and the medicine bottle.

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