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Life After Rebirth

Omkar Goswami

Dear Prime Minister
Many, many congratulations. Thanks to untiring efforts of your party and the Samajwadi Party, you have finally succeeded in getting the monkey off your back. The Left with their self-seeking “support from outside” had emasculated you and the UPA for four long years. Finally, you have shown Comrades Karat, Bardhan and their ilk the door. For many of us, the happiness of seeing them lose the confidence motion was the greatest satisfaction of it all.

So, you and your team now have earned their second life — albeit late in the innings. The question in everyone’s mind is, shorn of the Left baggage, what will you do during the next seven to eight months?

Hope springs eternal. English language scribes have been salivating at the idea of your packing in the next six months all the economic reforms that you couldn’t initiate in the last four years. They would have you increase foreign direct investment (FDI) in insurance to at least 49 per cent; pass the pensions bill; raise FDI in banking and eliminate the 10 per cent cap; create greater flexibility in the use of contract labour; and much more.

I, too, wish all of these would happen. But, somehow, I doubt their political possibility. More importantly, given the short time that is left between now and the elections, I wonder whether political capital should be further expended in pushing things that require painful and injurious legislative assent.

Lest I be labelled as a ‘pinko’, let me explain what I mean. From a political perspective, there are two main priorities: the first is to somehow get inflation under control under your helm, and to do so in a calm, sensible and communicable manner; and the second is to strengthen the Congress Party’s and its allies’ hands to fare much better in the next general elections. Both are gargantuan tasks. I wonder, therefore, how much would you like further stretch your party’s goodwill to pilot a series of bills in a fractious Parliament — however important these may be to us liberalisers.

The Left is smarting with this defeat. Ideally, the party should be doing some serious introspection about the monumental intransigence of its leader who won his last (an only?) election at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. But it won’t. Comrade Karat will remain where he is, even more grim, sullen and stubborn than before, and do everything he can to embarrass you every step of the way. He is not the only one. Joined in resentment is Mr. L.K. Advani, who saw defeat being snatched from what he thought was the jaws of victory. And there is the redoubtable Ms Mayawati who will do all that she can to fracture the ruling dispensation and cobble opportunistic alliances to satisfy a single-point agenda: her becoming the prime minister in 2009.

The UPA has beaten them this time around. But do you want to repeatedly confront them head on over the next six months? Instead of allowing your party leader to create the space to win more seats in the 2009 general election?

That doesn’t mean doing nothing. There are a slew of reforms that can be executed through administrative action, without legislative assent. Here’s one: systematic divestment of government shares in many inessential public sector undertakings, or those which are actually run by the private sector but with residual shares being held by government. Nothing great, the critic may say. Yet these would not only show that reforms are on track, but also yield much needed revenue.

Here’s my two paisa bit. Do as much reforms as possible without jeopardising the chances to build essential alliances for 2009. If the Congress can win 150-160 seats next time around, it has a serious chance of forming a workable government. That’s will require Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to work overtime from the morning after the trust vote. If, however, Congress wins less than 120 seats, a long and disparate tail will hitch itself with the other party. That’s not what you want — especially if you want to continue doing the reforms that matter.

Winning this vote is like passing Class 11 with distinction. Creditable, but of no consequence if one fails to secure the requisite marks in the Class 12 board exams. So, please do all that is needed with the Class 12 exam in mind, instead of spreading joy to the pink paper scribes and galloping into the sunset. The time is short.

Finally, hats off to Somnath Chatterjee. He deserves kudos from all right thinking citizens for showing that his constitutional responsibility mattered more for the propriety of this nation than playing partisan politics. How we wish there were more of him!

Published: Business Standard, July 2008


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