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The Enemies Within

Omkar Goswami


Few days ago, a friend asked me to what extent can the Left derail economic
reforms, especially after its strong electoral performance in Kerala and
West Bengal. Two years ago, I would have listed a dozen areas where the 61
Left MPs could have forced Manmohan Singh to abandon or reverse reforms.
Today, I don't consider the Left to be the number one enemy of economic
reforms. Instead, the most powerful enemies lurk within the Congress -
die-hard, Congress socialist apparatchiks who enjoy disproportionate power
by virtue of their long association with the Nehru-Gandhi family, and who
would like nothing more than to steer the nation backwards to their
antediluvian vision of the party's glorious past.

With the Left, you know where you stand. It wants greater public spending;
won't tolerate large scale privatisation by the centre; will oppose
legislative amendments to bring about greater labour market flexibility; has
reservations about pension reforms; and will do everything it can to
maintain FDI caps wherever possible, including insurance. By knowing where
they stand, there is always scope for astute negotiations - with the
government giving something to the Left in return for some slack in other
areas. There is also a large number of reforms that can be done through
executive decisions without recourse to the legislature. While the Left
would certainly protest against such acts, it would internally accept that
that's the rule of the game.

As my father used to tell me during the turbulent 1970s and early 1980s as
the CEO of a Kolkata-based engineering company, "You can always negotiate
sensibly with the CITU and AITUC. But rarely with the INTUC."

With the Machiavellians in the Congress, you simply don't know where you
stand. Certainly not a gentleman technocrat like Manmohan Singh. Consider,
for instance, the shrewd 76-year old Arjun Singh, who quietly keeps his own
counsel except when it is time to strike. His last true episode of glory was
as the Governor of Punjab after Operation Bluestar, when he and K. P. S.
Gill masterminded the extermination of terrorism and then ushered in a free
and fair election. That was 21 years ago. Thereafter, Arjun Singh remained
in the sidelines. During his first stint as the HRD Minister, an even
craftier fox called P. V. Narasimha Rao kept him marginalised. And it took
22 months of his second term at the HRD ministry before making his move.

What a monstrously successful cynical move it has turned out to be! After V.
P. Singh resurrected caste to the centre-stage of vote bank politics, Arjun
Singh has gone a step further with OBCs. The move has absolutely nothing to
do with uplifting the lot of the poor and socially deprived. That needs far
more schools, more teachers, more colleges and more vocational training
institutes to create employability; and more growth to generate greater
employment. Instead, it is all about caste-based vote banks. And its success
lies in the fact that, despite hunger strikes by medical students and feeble
protests by industry, not a single politician in India will dare oppose it.
Thanks to V. P. Singh, caste-based politics is so entrenched in our system
that no political practitioner can afford to be publicly shown up as
anti-backward caste.

I doubt whether Arjun Singh's move will gain significantly greater votes for
the Congress. Other parties will exploit it better. But it will have served
three purposes. First, it will prove to whoever matters that Arjun Singh is
the protector of backward castes. Second, it will put Manmohan Singh on the
backfoot, demonstrate who really are the bosses, and may even hobble his
capacity to pursue future reforms. And third, almost 60 years after
independence, it will ensure that India as a nation continues to eat, drink
and breathe caste. What a great legacy that is! And will it truly empower
the underprivileged? You can bet not.


Published: Business World, May 2006


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