Single party majority sarkar or Coalition sarkar?

Last week, parts of a speech of our National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval made headlines. Speaking at the Sardar Patel memorial lecture, Doval said that India needs a strong, stable and decisive government for the next 10 years. He also predicted that weak coalitions will be bad for India.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of another speech made by Y.V.Reddy, Former Governor of RBI some time in 2017. “Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments… So, in a way it is consensus based… in Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government,” Mr. Reddy told a Washington audience on September 27.

From the two specks of wisdom, we can assume that while the former spoke from security point of view, the latter did from economic point of view.  While I don’t remember many reactions to Y.V. Reddy’s opinion then, Doval’s speech has triggered a lot of rebuttals, primary one being, this piece from The Print’s Shekhar Gupta where he has argued that majority governments in the past including that of Rajiv Gandhi’s in the 80’s and the present one of Narendra Modi have not been better off significantly than the few coalition governments we had in between!

Without going back too much back in time, I would like to focus on the present majority government of the BJP in this post. By the evening of 16th May, 2014 when it was clear that BJP against all expectations and pre-poll predictions, was hitting the half way mark on their own, there was euphoria all around. Even among the non-BJP loyalists, there was visible excitement of how a majority government can decisively take the country forward without having to constantly look over its shoulders. By nature, coalition governments formed mostly through post poll alliances come with the spectre of instability. So, here was a government finally which had the numbers on its own and a two third majority with its allies. So, can’t blame the public at large including the author if they thought that Acche Din finally arrived for India!

In India, we have had a long history of taking one step forward and few steps backward. Unfortunately this did not change even with a single party government with a decisive leader at its helm as we found soon enough in 2014. We soon found that adequate majority in Lok Sabha is not enough and that the government needs numbers in Rajya Sabha also to be effectively called as a “true majority Sarkar”! And for that, the wait needed to be longer – another 5 years or so!

As per me, the virtues of a single party majority Sarkar got exposed when this government failed to get the amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill passed. In his 1st meeting with the Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi was reported to have got the feedback from most of the CMs (including of the Congress) that the tough and impractical clauses in the Land Acquisition Bill presented the single biggest challenge in getting many infrastructure projects off the ground.  The government went about making changes in the provisions and tried to pass the bill. But couldn’t get the bill passed through in Rajya Sabha where the Congress and the Left blocked it effectively. The majority government then tried to use the Ordinance route many times but finally gave up, coming under the cloud of Rahul Gandhi’s Suit Boot Sarkar jibe! As we speak, in spite of this Government’s intent and drive towards kicking off many infrastructure projects, land acquisition continues to be the biggest impediment in meeting deadlines for large game changing projects!

Here, I feel that a coalition Sarkar of the stable type as NDA-1 run by Vajpayee or the UPA-1 run by Manmohan Singh, would have handled this differently. By engaging with the respective oppositions through dialogues and agreeing to give and take on a few provisions. Since many Congress CMs were on board on the changes to the Land Acquisition Bill, dialogues with the Congress party leadership through some of these CMs would have probably done the trick leaving the Left isolated on this.  As we all know now, in the initial days of this government, its single point agenda was to isolate the Congress. What if the government had given the status of the Leader of Opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha as a quid pro quo to getting their support to a few important bills in the Rajya Sabha? Machiavelli or our own Chanakya would have been proud, isn’t it?

In spite of this initial setback though crucial, I do believe that the Modi Sarkar was flying high in that period. From bringing Swachh Bharat to national discourse to bringing back India at the top of investment destinations worldwide, Modi Sarkar could not make a single false move, but that was till November 2016! With the confidence in the Indian economy back and aided by windfall gains from low crude prices, one thought that the Universe was finally beginning to conspire to make India successful.  Again that was still November 2016!

In November 2016, Modi Sarkar took on the Universe and went ahead with Demonetisation. What seemed a master stroke initially to suck out black money, soon turned out to be an ill-conceived and ill – executed move that set the economy back by a year or so.  The much lauded ‘Jugaad’ mentality of Indians came to party, the result of which we could finally get to see.  As much as 99.3% of the junked 500 and 1,000 rupee notes returned to the banking system!! While it is to the credit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government came out unscathed with its credibility intact or grown even after this very huge miss-step, I wonder if a major decision like this could have been taken without taking the coalition partners into confidence if it was a coalition government. And in the same token, I do feel that the collective wisdom of a coalition cabinet would not have let this move go at least without proper checks, balances and preparations!

I certainly would not add the introduction of GST as a miss-step of this government as many are doing, as I firmly believe that GST was a long-awaited reform and in the introduction of the same, Modi Sarkar learnt its lessons and behaved like a coalition government in listening to and taking all parties on board. The result is there to see. GST is a reality now and after initial hiccups as can be expected from any path breaking reform, the benefits are trickling down with the GDP showing clear signs of recovery in the past few quarters.

A majority government led by a decisive leader provides for great optics particularly from foreign countries’ point of view. And that has its own benefits as major powers would like to believe that the Government/leader they are engaging across the table has the backing of the popular mandate. However, in practice, I have now come to feel that a coalition government led by a party with a fair share of numbers led by a decisive leader may be ideal for a diverse country like India. In that, we do get the advantage of the collective wisdom of alternate views while, the virtues of the decisive leader are also not missed out.

Or going a step further, a majority government with a decisive leader which behaves like a coalition government by not taking key, strategic decisions without passing by the collective wisdom of alternate brains!  In short, institutionalizing the “GST Introduction model” for all key decisions!

So going back to the speeches of Y.V.Reddy and Ajit Doval, both may be correct. In parts! Just that like in many aspects in India, the ideal situation may be somewhere in between!

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Blame it on “India Shining”!!!

Indians or should I say Middle Class Indians were ushered into the new year of 2004 with a feel good factor spread by the “India Shining” campaign launched by the then ruling front – the National Democratic Alliance ( NDA ) or rather its anchor constituent the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ).  The reasoning was quite simple.  The NDA, whose term was to end in Oct 2004, thought that the time was ripe to call in early elections to cash in on the overall positive political climate.  (It is said that the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not keen on this move and felt that there was still work to be done but eventually had to give in to the more vocal party strategists).  The economy was booming, stocks markets were on a high, state election results were favourable, external affairs particularly relations with Pakistan was stable and more than everything the principal opposition the Congress was in a dilapidated state – reasons enough for this early calling of elections.   So, if I remember correct from Jan in that year onwards for a few months we were inundated with the “India Shining” campaign across all media.

1991, when India was in the verge of bankruptcy was when we were introduced to “Reforms” – both Economic and Structural.  While credit must be given to the architects of the Reforms 1.0 – Dr. Narasimha Rao, Dr. Manmohan Singh and their team, it is also not a secret that many of the items in that Reforms 1.0 were mandated by the IMF.  In the period of 1999 – 2004 during the NDA regime, we saw what I would call as Reforms 2.0.  Independent India for the 1st time had a full time minister for Disinvestment (Arun Shourie) who spiritedly fought his detractors to disinvest and unlock value in many of the Public Sector Units (PSUs) including the likes of Maruti Udyog, IPCL, VSNL,.. Petroleum Minister Ram Naik ventured into the now very sensitive area of dismantling the Administered Price Mechanism for Petrol whereby price of petrol will be decided by market forces rather than by the ministry. It was also the time when the Telecom read as Mobile revolution was slowly sweeping the hinterlands of the country.  With the benefit of hindsight one can say that from governance point of view the NDA regime didn’t do a bad job and if one realizes that it was also a cobbled up opportunistic alliance with its own compulsions, Vajpayee did manage to do a great job.

To the shock of all pundits, NDA lost and UPA came to power.  It was easy for all to blame NDA’s “India Shining” campaign for the defeat.  However there was a larger issue – far reaching conclusions were arrived by the stake holders. Some of them were – ‘India Shining campaign’ is a metaphor for reforms.  So that means if people rejected “India Shining” campaign, they rejected Reforms. Period. The political conclusion across the board was that the NDA was defeated because of the misleading “India Shining” campaign where the aam admi felt that he was not benefitted by the NDA rule while somebody else has.  The fact of the matter is NDA lost not because of their “India Shining” campaign or the reforms which they pursued but in spite of them.  While they swept the Hindi belt except Delhi, they lost the 2 important states in the South – AP and TN.  AP because Chandrababu Naidu in his obsession with the IT and the chatter class hype was completely oblivious of the strides Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR) was making with his “Padyatra’ in the interiors of AP.  In TN, BJP made the strategic error of listening to wrong advisors and allied with Jayalalitha and let DMK go off their alliance.  These 3 states were enough to upset the electoral arithmetic.

This made the political class in both sides of the divide to firm up that reforms were never benefitting the poor.   Since then reforms in India is not a 7 letter word but a four letter one for the entire political class whether the ruling front or the opposition.

The immediate fallout was that UPA –I with the Left supporting them outside decided to “Spend” for growth rather than “Invest” for growth.  The govt. itself had a very limited reform agenda and even that was opposed by the Left.

One thought that in UPA-II without the Left and with a renewed mandate, the PM and his party-the Congress would be in a firmer wicket to push through reforms. However in UPA-II we see the spectre of Mamata who is blocking any supposedly reform initiative of the beleaguered government.  The Left is having a last laugh today because Mamata is espousing what all they believe in and in that in a much more effective way!  While Dr. Manmohan Singh risked his govt. while taking on the Left on the issue of the Civil Nuclear deal with the US during UPA-I, there is nothing of that steely nerve seen in pushing through reforms now.

And on the other side the situation is worse.   The BJP still smarting under that defeat in 2004 opposes the same reforms which they introduced in their time whether it is the GST or FDI in retail or even dismantling the APM completely.  Today while in the opposition it is clear that they are paying lip service to reforms!

I am glad that there is serious debate in the country regarding reforms today. However the political leadership across the board is not on board the Reforms bus. Under the scenario we need articulate political leaders to drive home the economical and therefore the political advantages of Reforms to their party men.  Recently I saw Dr. Shashi Tharoor using the online medium to build consensus on reforms which should be commended. Similarly Yashwant Sinha though doesn’t speak well of the reforms in the parliament has been vocally articulating the need for reforms in his columns.  Let more of this tribe emerge!

In spite of all this if “Reforms” still remains a bad word – blame it on that “India Shining”!

While on this, this piece from The Economist is a relevant read :

http://www.economist.com/node/21556576?fsrc=nlw|hig|6-7-2012|2049894|73958874|AP

P.S: In a recent article in the Economic times, N.K.Singh, Ex Finance Secretary and now Rajyasabha MP wrote, “When I walked into the room of finance minister Manmohan Singh shortly after June 21, 1991, to congratulate him, he told me that “we will change India”.

Dr. Singh – India is waiting to see that change you promised Sir!