India - Obligations of The New Mandate

. 5/21/09

Because the nature of the 2009 Lok Sabha mandate is so qualitatively different from the one given by the electorate in 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and their colleagues are under a definite obligation to do things differently from what they have done these last five years. The assumptions and arrangements that were accepted uncritically by the United Progressive Alliance bosses can no longer work because these are decisively against the grain of the 2009 mandate. Even though Dr. Singh will still be heading a coalition government, the dominance of the Congress is sufficient to ensure that the governing arrangement is not reduced to a private concord between political warlords. The bottom line of the new mandate is better governance.

To begin with, the principle of prime ministerial pre-eminence will need to be reasserted within the Cabinet. These last five years, several coalition colleagues in the Cabinet were functioning as Prime Ministers for their respective Ministries; Dr. Singh could not exercise his power to review or disapprove of the functioning of a wayward nominee of a coalition partner. Some of the allies acted as if they had a licence to be indifferent to ethical considerations. It is not as if Dr. Singh or Ms Gandhi was unaware of the misfeasance at work. It is just that these leaders did not feel they had the elbow room of Lok Sabha numbers to pull up this or that errant Minister.

Further, the helplessness of the Prime Minister and the Congress president in relation to the coalition partners’ misdeeds meant they could not control even the Congress Ministers. Till the Mumbai terror attack in the last week of November 2008, no Minister was removed for non-performance or impropriety. The sole exception was Natwar Singh’s exit in the wake of the Volcker controversy. For five years, the Manmohan-Sonia duo remained in awe of old Congressmen and their capacity to intrigue. The latest brush with the voters should liberate the two from the mischief-making potential of this or that ‘loyalist.’

The coalition government’s working style will have to make way for a new protocol based on openness and accountability. The Prime Minister in particular should be prepared to use his experience and insight into the various nexuses, linkages, and habits to ensure that his Cabinet colleagues do not cross the legal and ethical lakshman rekha. The message must go out immediately that the new government will not be an unethical replica of the first UPA arrangement. The new Cabinet must act as a team, committed to cooperative functioning and discipline.

If the voters have given a clear verdict, it is partly because they were apprehensive of the unhealthy and undesirable connections and conmen threatening to swarm North Block and South Block in the name of this or that front. The daily sight of these power brokers being treated respectfully and even deferentially on news channels was deeply disquieting to law-abiding citizens. Voters have now spared the Congress leadership the necessity of bad bargains with unsavoury allies. The voters have left the Prime Minister no excuse for putting up with practitioners of bad governance, even if they happen to be part of the new compact coalition.

A second area of attention is a new design for the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Congress high command, between the government and the party. For five years, the UPA government allowed itself to be pushed on the back foot because the opposition raised the bogey of Ms Gandhi acquiring an ‘extra-constitutional’ role. Not once did the Congress have the courage of conviction and conventions to assert that the parliamentary system in essence is anchored in party politics. No Prime Minister can be entirely free from party identity and connections. As Prime Minister Singh was entirely a creation of the Congress, there was no reason to be apologetic about it. But some of the Prime Minister’s aides and some Congress functionaries managed to create bad blood between the government and the party.

To a large extent, this relationship will cease to be a sensitive issue. First, Dr. Singh’s political persona, with all its minuses and assets, is at the centre of the 2009 mandate. Even the most ‘loyal’ second-rung Congress leaders cannot dismiss him as unworthy of respect and affection. Secondly, the fact that the new government will be a predominantly Congress regime should facilitate open traffic of people and ideas between 7 Race Course Road and 24 Akbar Road. Thirdly, Ms Gandhi has given sufficient indications that she will not lend her ear to those who wish to whisper an intriguing word against the Prime Minister. Finally, it will be hoped that Ms Gandhi has the right measure of the ‘old loyalists.’ There is no need to saddle the new government with deadwood.

Once these two equations — between the Prime Minister and the Congress and between him and the coalition partners — are reset in accordance with the new mandate, the primary task of the new regime becomes restoration of the autonomy of the governing institutions. Key institutions such as the Election Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Central Vigilance Commission must be totally insulated from political interference as well as from the rites of patronage. The perception that the CBI or the CVC can be influenced to suit the ruling establishment’s convenience must go away. The individuals chosen for these institutions should be persons of integrity and competence. A beginning can be made with a statutory stipulation that the Leader of the Opposition be consulted in all such appointments. In particular, the allies (as also the Congress) must be firmly told that judicial appointments are not subject to any quid pro quo.

The 2009 vote can also be interpreted as a rejection of the politics of negativism and exclusion. The voters have placed an obligation on all parties and political formations to devise a new grammar of politics, of hope and inclusion. The voter expects warring political parties to discover the virtue of bipartisanship on issues. What President Obama said at his first full-scale news conference is relevant to our political class. He observed: “There has been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it is going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.” Mercifully, the BJP leadership has been graceful in its moment of electoral defeat; and the country expects the party to perform the role of a robust Opposition, questioning and scrutinising the government. A vigilant Opposition can help a good Prime Minister and a sensitive government beat back unwholesome impulses and interests.

It is vitally important that the political parties and leaders realise that only their responsible behaviour can help the constitutional system recover its soul. There has been a marked diminution in the respect the political system commands from within and outside the democratic orbit. By pre-empting the possibilities of squabbling and kerb-trading, the voters have charged the political leadership, across the board, with a new obligation to get serious and sincere about governance, about dedicating themselves to protecting the public interest from encroachment by vested interests, at home and abroad. The very idea of public values and interests stand revalidated, and will need to be advanced against failed market mantras.

Inherent in the 2009 mandate is a yearning for stability and coherence at the very core of the Indian state. The fractured nature of the polity these last few years has inculcated habits of moral indifference and greedy calculation. The new vote means that the voters do not want the Centre to become an all-India version of Jharkhand. In other words, the 2009 mandate has mandated Dr. Manmohan Singh to restore the moral elements in governing processes and practices.
Source: The Hindu

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