In Kuala Lumpur last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indicated that India would soon open its retail sector to foreign investment. Immediately his CPM partners at home shot down the idea. One is sure foreign powers are not entirely ignorant about what goes on inside India. The PM went on to urge the creation of a Pan Asian Free Trade Area. This sounded embarrassingly premature coming from a nation unable to provide teeth to the South Asian Free Trade Area. One hopes the PM is not committing the fatal error of chasing expansion while neglecting consolidation. One thought that problems confronting the European Union would have alerted him to the danger of doing this. A great deal needs to be done to achieve consolidation in South Asia, as also in India itself. It would be prudent for the government to deal with first things first.
While the PM was abroad the cash-for-questions scandal surfaced involving eleven MPs. Most media persons said: "What's new? This has been going on for years! And why just eleven? Probably hundreds of MPs could have been exposed". The politicians threw up their hands in horror. They solemnly vowed to punish the guilty. The hypocritical pretence of shock became particularly nauseating when leaders indicted by official inquiry committees for having been linked to criminals and corruption donned robes of piety and sermonized. Public cynicism about corruption has become so widespread that it threatens the very survival of our democratic system.
It is facile to say that it is bad people who have ruined a good system. True, human quality has enormous impact on the working of a system. But equally, the system exercises enormous influence on the character of a people. It would be futile to expect improvement in the human quality of people without first removing flaws in the system that encourage a fall in behavioral standards. There are serious flaws in our present system. This has encouraged a permissive attitude towards corruption, and laxity in observance of law. The system lacks effective checks and balances. Unchecked power leads to corruption.
One example should suffice. Before any official or minister can be investigated or prosecuted the investigating agency must get clearance from the government. Isn't that like seeking permission from an offender to investigate him?
Economically, India stands on the threshold of a quantum leap forward. Politically, it can at any time trip and fall. The need is crucial therefore for radical political reform. The Constitution needs reappraisal. Certain amendments in it deserve deletion. Some new amendments need inclusion. Power needs to be decentralized to grassroots level. The President needs a role commensurate with his mandate. Above all a holistic policy agenda is required that integrates concerns of security with liberty, of economic growth with distributive justice. There is no dearth of Indian talent that can formulate a workable agenda which encompasses the needs of our economic, foreign, defence and domestic policies. What is missing is the political instrument for effectively translating policies into action. Such a political instrument is required urgently, the sooner the better. From where can it come?
The nation has a large number of political parties. It is saddled with coalition politics. Whatever instrument is to be forged immediately must be culled from the parties and politicians currently adorning the political stage. There has been much talk recently about how Indian politicians must learn to respect the coalition dharma. But what is the coalition dharma? Obviously, when no single party commands a majority in parliament the government perforce must be a coalition. Some principles need plainly to be observed for ensuring success of a coalition. There must be a common agenda which the coalition partners accept. That agenda must be as close as possible to the respective policies and attitudes followed by the coalition partners. Compatibility between a party's policies and the common coalition agenda minimizes both inner-party and inter party contradictions among coalition partners. All this is conspicuously absent in the UPA government.
The Congress and the Left Front have fundamental differences of approach to both foreign as well as economic policies. To pretend otherwise would be silly. Unlike the Congress the Left drags its feet on economic reforms. And unlike the Congress the Left has a mindset hostile to America. The common bond between the Congress and Left is animosity to communalism and the desire to marginalize BJP. These may be and may remain worthwhile objectives. But do they still hold? Will they continue to hold?
Unlike the Left, the BJP is close to Congress in both economic and foreign policies. Their partnership would certainly facilitate speedy progress of the Congress agenda. As for communalism, there have been tragic lapses by both parties - the Congress during the Delhi anti-Sikh genocide and the BJP during the post-Godhra Gujarat riots. Muffled sounds suggest that the need for cooperation is being felt by elements within both parties. Mr Kalyan Singh recently advocated a "national government" to speed up development in the nation. With Congress and BJP accounting for a clear parliamentary majority it is obvious enough what Mr Kalyan Singh really had in mind. Mr Kalyan Singh is best qualified to deal with the ideological hurdles that need to be overcome for achieving such cooperation. A BJP hardliner who justified demolition of the Babri Mosque by stating that he recognized justice only administered by the highest court of God, he was impelled by personal differences to float his own party. Eventually he allied with Mr Mulayam Singh, the fiercest opponent of the Babri demolition. Mr Kalyan Singh recalled then that the demolition was inspired and effected solely by RSS hardliners. Alas, he soon fell foul of Mr Mulayam Singh too. He returned to the BJP fold. He then pointed out that his remarks about the RSS had been misquoted.
Before Congress leaders ridicule Mr Kalyan Singh they should reflect on the alacrity with which they welcomed with open arms Hindutva hardliners from the Shiv Sena into their fold. For both Mr Sanjay Nirupam and Mr Narayan Rane, Mr Bal Thackeray's remote control has become a distant memory. They now bask in the sunshine generated by Mrs Sonia Gandhi's remote control. Mr Bal Thackeray's nephew, Mr Raj Thackeray, was also invited by the Maharashtra State Congress leadership to join Congress. Mr Raj Thackeray has not, by current reckoning, decided yet whether he is ideologically closer to his uncle or to Mrs Gandhi. He has decided to float his own party. That gives him time to choose his eventual ally.
Recently Mr Priya Ranjan Das Munshi declared that for the purpose of challenging the Left Front in Bengal a Mahajot would be desirable. He said that the proposed Mahajot should not consider the State BJP unit untouchable. Sunday's Trinamool rally in Calcutta addressed by Mr SS Ray and Mr LK Advani among others reinforced this view. The obvious question is, if Congress and BJP can ally in Bengal, why not ally all over India? Surely Messrs Vajpayee and Advani should be as much acceptable to the Congress leadership as are Messrs Rane and Nirupam? A Congress-BJP alliance would work more smoothly than the Congress-Left alliance. It would benefit both the Congress and the BJP. Most of all it would benefit the nation. The space occupied by a phony opposition would be vacated. A genuine alternative could emerge. The CPM could conceivably forge a winning united front to dislodge both Congress and BJP. It would have to adopt Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's pragmatism and discard Mr Prakash Karat's dogma. Logic plays little part in politics. But one should be honest. Congress and BJP are natural coalition partners. In the long run, honesty does remain the best policy.