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Thursday, May 21, 2009

From The Times of India, May 21, 2009

TOP ARTICLE The Decency Option
Election Result Is Key Step in India’s Political Evolution

21 May 2009, 0010 hrs IST, RAJIV DESAI

On Sunday, television viewers witnessed the denouement of the media's noisy and often distorted coverage of the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha.

Just an hour or so after counting began, it became clear the Congress was on its way to a renewed and enhanced mandate. Some saw this coming; indeed, it was there for all to see. The election had taken place under the most extraordinary circumstances: an acute global financial crisis and the aftermath of terror attacks in Mumbai late last year. It was fairly obvious that voters would plump for stability by providing a decisive verdict as they had in 1977 and 1984.

Like the one in 2009, those two elections were held at a time India felt its future was at stake. In 1977, voters decisively rejected Indira Gandhi after she suspended the Constitution, jailed political opponents and muzzled the press during her two-year Emergency. Seven years later, after she fell victim to the bullets of her Sikh bodyguards, the electorate gave her son Rajiv the biggest-ever mandate. These two extraordinary outcomes were useful in predicting the result of the most recent parliamentary election.

One of the most stirring moments in the post-result euphoria was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters assembled at 10 Janpath, Sonia Gandhi's residence, "I urge all the political parties to forget their past disputes...We should stand one as a nation." The comment is important because it represents the return of civility in pairs. Unlike the triumphal note the BJP, the Left and various regional formations customarily sound on their various victories, Singh's sober tone signalled his intention to steer a conciliatory course in his next term. Under the new dispensation, public discourse would move beyond matters of probity to decency in public life. This is a major step in the evolution of the political system.

Sadly though, various self-important Congress factotums hit the high registers of arrogance in their dealings with former allies like Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav and with current supporters like the DMK.

This acrimonious beginning raises troubling questions about the future. The vindictive elements need to be reined in swiftly. Unchecked, their arrogance could undermine the new credibility the Grand Old Party has won. If the Congress is to implement what P Chidambaram called its "crisp" manifesto, it will need broad support from the non-Left, non-BJP members of Parliament.

So what's on tap? Take monetary policy. With the resurgence of investor confidence, the Reserve Bank is likely to cut interest rates to facilitate the flow of credit into the domestic economy. In the event, it must also provide incentives to banks to lend to businesses, especially cash-starved small and medium enterprises.

Concerning fiscal policy, huge investments are needed in surface and mass transport, civil aviation, sanitation, water supply, power generation and what have you. One obvious way to raise funds is to sell public sector assets. The railways, ports trusts and various other agencies own vast tracts of prized real estate that could fetch princely sums. The telecom department is widely known to have the biggest network of auto repair shops in India. The tourism ministry's crumbling hotels are obvious targets of divestment as are government-run airlines.

Hobbled by the Left and its fellow travellers in the Congress and its allies, the government hedged its bets on attracting foreign investment. Complex bureaucratic hurdles made FDI dwindle in sector after sector. In retail, insurance, pensions, civil aviation, you name it, opening up remained at best an unfulfilled promise. Ominously, the commerce ministry's Kamal Nath breezily told a television channel, "We already have a liberalised (FDI) regime." He followed that up with a clear no on retail sector reform.

On higher education, despite the National Knowledge Commission's recommendations, policy remained confused and corrupt, dominated by a venal bureaucracy (the All India Council on Technical Education comes to mind) and obtuse politicians. The sluggish human resources development ministry, by its acts of omission and commission, spawned the paradox of growing unemployment despite a huge demand for qualified personnel.

With trade, India adopted the spoiler's role at World Trade Organisation conferences, playing the victim of rapacious developed countries. The rhetoric employed was from another era, when India played a prominent role in the Group of 77, the commercial foil of the Non-aligned Movement. Without the Left calling the shots, its acolytes in the Congress-led ruling coalition will find themselves adrift. It is likely that India will pursue a more reasonable line.

On foreign policy, the strategic alliance with the US, embodied in the nuclear deal, achieved a long-standing objective: to overturn the discriminatory non-proliferation regime. In the neighbourhood, South Block welcomed US pressure on Pakistan seeking to curb its military's anti-India fixation and focus attention on domestic problems caused by a resurgent Taliban. In Sri Lanka, India supported Colombo's final assault on the LTTE ridding the region of a major terrorist force. In Bangladesh and Nepal, the approach has been somewhat mixed, lacking strategic focus.

Despite the show of hubris by vindictive apparatchiks in the Congress and nagging doubts about its leftist bloc, the overall message is that the election results are a game changer.

copyright rajiv desai 2009