Congress in crisis, BJP no answer - Praful Bidwai - Saturday, February 26, 2011

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In his interaction with television journalists on February 16, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came across not as a statesman-like leader with a vision, but as a wily, run-of-the-mill politician, adept at deflecting criticism. Singh did what no Indian Prime Minister has done: plead helplessness in the face of corporate loot of public money, erosion of institutions, inflation, and failure to bring about inclusive growth.

The burden of Singh’s song was this: I’m working under constraints, such as coalition politics, so I can’t be blamed for my government’s failures. I’m squeaky-clean, you can’t doubt my integrity. Second, I sacked telecom minister A Raja for the 2G telecom scam. Third, the UPA government is doing OK: there’s 8.5 per cent GDP growth. Our policies don’t need to be revised.

Singh deplorably invoked “coalition dharma”, a sordidly unethical term invented by the Bharatiya Janata Party to rationalise opportunist alliances with ideologically-opposed parties. What “dharma” allows Congress allies to milk ministries? And why did Singh promote Vilasrao Deshmukh, indicted by the Supreme Court for protecting loan-sharks, to rural development, a cash cow for venal politicians? Deshmukh belongs to Singh’s own Congress party.

The issue isn’t Singh’s integrity, but his leadership; in particular, his failure to prevent corruption and abuse of power. Raja was sacked only after the Central Bureau of Investigation probed the 2G scam under the Supreme Court’s supervision. Raja’s removal doesn’t resolve the flaws in the telecom policy framework within which he worked. Singh can’t plead helplessness on the appointment of Central Vigilance Commissioner PJ Thomas. He personally signed the papers, violating the norm that the opposition must consent to the appointment.

The Singh government’s failures are attributable to elitist policies, systemic corruption, pampering of big business, and inattention to inflation, which arises from the blind faith that the market will automatically correct distortions. There’s also the reluctance to intervene in the market to bring down prices. It’s illegitimate for Singh to blame the Congress or its partners for this.

The UPA’s single greatest failure – absence of inclusive, pro-poor growth – is directly attributable to Singh’s mindlessly pro-rich, pro-corporate neoliberal policies. Yet, neoliberalism is the only thing on which he spoke passionately, while underscoring his determination to persist with investor-friendly politics.

Singh minimised corruption and growing inequalities by likening the losses from telecom scams to government expenditure on food subsidies. Such subsidies are not losses; they represent a social gain – correcting structural social-economic perversities which perpetuate hunger and malnutrition. Adequate food is a fundamental right of the people; providing it is the duty of the government. Governments that cannot do this are dysfunctional and illegitimate.

Singh’s government seems inclined to exploit today’s high food prices to promote foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail trade. The plea, that this would improve food distribution and stabilise prices, is spurious and speaks of the utmost cynicism.

The opposition parties now have a good chance to confront the UPA with alternative agendas. Alas, they are preoccupied with assembly elections – the Left with make-or-break polls in West Bengal and Kerala, and the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. That leaves the BJP. But it cannot mount a serious political attack on the UPA and weaken it before the next general election, for at least five reasons.

First, the BJP leadership is divided and confused. Recent scandals have suddenly electrified the 83-year-old LK Advani into leadership assertion. The “Loh Purush” was to have retired – under RSS dictates, no less – from active politics and made way for acolytes Arun Jaitly and Sushma Swaraj. But he probably sees a chance to fulfil his life’s prime ambition – to become prime minister. His hyperactivism has upset the BJP’s leadership equations, further weakened party president Nitin Gadkari (never an able candidate for the post), and embarrassed Advani’s own groupies.

Second, Advani made an extraordinarily irresponsible public statement accusing Sonia Gandhi of controlling a $2.2 billion Swiss Bank account, based on a wild allegation in a Swiss tabloid – without verifying it. He had to apologise abjectly to her. This has temporarily taken the wind out of the BJP’s political sails.

Third, the National Intelligence Agency and Military Intelligence have discovered clinching evidence linking present and former RSS office-bearers such as Indresh Kumar and Swami Aseemanand to the Malegaon, Hyderabad and Ajmer blasts at Muslim places of worship, and to the Samjhauta Express bombings. The attacks were systematically planned at Aseemanand’s Shabari Kumbh in the Dangs in Gujarat in 2006.

The RSS leadership has reacted contradictorily to the allegations, beginning with “Sadhvi” Pragya Thakur. It first rushed to her defence and claimed she was falsely implicated. It then said Hindutva terrorism is a contradiction in terms and it doesn’t believe in violence – although there’s compelling evidence that it does and was the ideological inspiration behind Gandhiji’s assassination.

Now, the RSS has changed its tune and is suing for peace. It has written to Singh offering “cooperation” in investigating the extremist organisations involved in the recent bombings at mosques and dargahs.

Fearing a ban on itself, the RSS has tried to distance itself from such organisations and individuals. This is completely unconvincing. These groups were inspired by and were members of the RSS; some like Indresh Kumar, continue to be its office-bearers.

A ban on the RSS as a “terrorist” organisation would further shrink its membership, stem its inflow of legal foreign funds and alienate many middle-class people. This is becoming a big liability for the BJP and will severely limit its freedom of action.

Fourth, the BJP seriously lacks a distinctive vision or coherent policies to counter the UPA. It is even more tied to corporate interests and neoliberal policies, and a pro-Western foreign and security policy. Its claim to be “a party with a difference” has lost what little credibility it ever had. The BJP in Karnataka has taken corruption to new heights, and its defector-based government has become predatory on the people.

BJP governments in some states may not be much inferior to Congress-led ones in implementing central programmes, including the Rural Employment Guarantee and universal primary education. But that doesn’t add up to a vision based on a distinct worldview and coherent policies.

So, the BJP sounds particularly shrill and unbalanced when it criticises the Congress/UPA, especially when similar scandals occurred during its own rule at the centre. Money-laundering and spiriting away funds abroad aren’t new. The BJP never curbed such practices. Now that the UPA has agreed to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G-scam, the BJP stands robbed of a strong issue on which to confront the UPA.

Finally, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance remains anaemic. It has failed to expand beyond the Janata Dal (United), Akali Dal, Indian National Lok Dal, and Shiv Sena. Its much-touted anti-corruption campaign never really took off. No other party joined it. Even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar kept away. Meanwhile, the Left parties have recruited the Telugu Desam and AIADMK into another front.

So, the BJP’s prospect of emerging as an alternative pole to the UPA is bleak. It can at best hope to gain from its opponents’ mistakes. Thanks to its communal sectarianism, it still remains Indian politics’ Odd Man Out.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email:

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