The Guest Column

26th January 1997

Uncertain times ahead for India's Government

by Stanley Kalpage

The third non-Congress government in fifty years of Independence, the 13-party coalition government of disparate elements headed by Deve Gowda, is drifting along, until the Congress party gets its act together and withdraws the support that keeps the government in power. Gowda was safe while Narasimha Rao was head of the Congress.

The resignation of Narasimha Rao from the leadership of the Congress party and of its parliamentary group does not help Deve Gowda, who seemed to have a good personal relationship with Narasimha Rao. Moreover, regional parties which linked themselves with the 42-member Janatha Dal to keep the BJP (Bharatiya Janatha Party) out of power, have not succeeded in securing greater autonomy to run their affairs. The left wing parties are still suspicious of the accelerated liberalization policies of former Minister of Finance, Manmohan Singh, and are determined not to allow Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram to veer away from the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) agreed to by the coalition partners eight months ago.

Above all, the personality of the Prime Minister is thought to be responsible for the plunging fortunes of the coalition government. His simple self-effacing modesty, so helpful at the time he was being selected as the leader of the United Front government, in the aftermath of an inconclusive general election, has given place to the image of a person out of his depth at the centre of power. The agony of being Prime Minister is beginning to tell on Deve Gowda. He is becoming increasingly aware that managing the complex problems of the world's most populous democracy is not the same as dealing with the politics of a single state like Karnataka.

Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, in an interview with M. J. Akbar published in The Asian Age said that the CMP could have been much better implemented if the Central Committee of the All India Communist (Marxist) party had accepted the offer of the other coalition partners for him (Jyoti Basu) to become the Prime Minister of India. "It is a political blunder. It is a historic blunder" he lamented.

Exit of Narasimha Rao

One year ago, Narasimha Rao did not appear to be in any danger of being consigned to virtual oblivion. He was Prime Minister of India, President of the Congress party and leader of its parliamentary group. Whiffs of corruption were wafting through the corridors of power even then, and yet the Prime Minister did not seem to be in danger of being ousted, still less of being forced out in disgrace. He made use of the scandals that were surfacing to get rid of, and distance himself from, his main rivals like Sharad Pawar, Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh. And when the scandals seemed to touch him he dismissed his culpability with his now famous line "the law will take its own course."

After leading the Congress to its worst defeat in history, Narasimha Rao has been thrown out of the party presidentship and as leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). A string of associations and charges have brought the former Prime Minister to court - St. Kitts, Lakhubai Pathak, Hawala, buying off politicians before a crucial parliamentary vote. Even his former friend from Kerala, K. Karunakaran, says "Rao's machiavellian methods did help him to survive for five years but in the process he lost moral ground and credibility to rule."

Enter Sitaram Kesri

Ironically, it was Sitaram Kesri, the ageing treasurer of the Congress Party, whom Narasimha Rao brought in as stop gap party president in September of last year, who worked with both skill and deviousness to plot the nose-dive that Narasimha Rao's fortunes have taken. From the time he became president of the Congress party, the septuagenarian leader seemed to be motivated by just one ambition - to propel himself as undisputed leader of the party and its parliamentary group. As a member of the Rajye Sabha, he does not have a mass base, nor did he command widespread support in the CPP. And yet on 3 January, Congress party president Sitaram Kesri was unanimously elected leader of the CPP. The two posts that he now holds will give him total control of the 111 year old Congress party and the confidence to carry out his further plans. He himself has said "my ambition is to see the Congress assume power." And at 78, Sitaram Kesri is in a hurry.

Sitaram Kesri's strategy seems to be to woo the regional leaders who are currently supporting the United Front government but moved away earlier from the Congress because of differences with Narasimha Rao. Leaders of southern states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are targets of this strategy; G. K. Moopanar's Tamil Maanila Congress with 20 MPs, M. Karunanidhi's DMK with 17 MPs and Chandrababu Naidu's 17 MPs from the Telugu Desam Party of Karnataka. Regional leaders are disappointed with the manner in which the United Front government has handled region specific issues; for example, the alleged indifference of the Centre to the damage inflicted by the cyclone that struck coastal Andhra Pradesh early in November. The demands for regional autonomy have only got more vocal and may even become violent. On the other hand, even if the constituent regional parties decide to leave the coalition United Front, their members in the Cabinet may decide to remain where they are.

Economy in trouble

On the economic front, the Common Minimum Programme does not seem to be producing anticipated results. For the first time in years, grain shortages have appeared. Bureaucratic and political interference in public sector appointments is said to be rampant. Privatisation programmes are being thwarted by the constituent left wing parties of the coalition government. Economic growth is certain to be lower than hoped for. The rate of industrial growth has dropped. Prices are on the upward path after a few months of illusory stability. Petrol and electricity prices are likely to rise. More power cuts and infrastructure shortages are forecast. A slight revival in markets is expected following the budget in March. Minister of Finance, P. Chidambaram states "The economy will do just as well as it did last year." But he has not been as successful as he expected to be when he took office seven months ago.

More short-lived governments

As India approaches the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, the Congress Party that guided it for much of the period since independence is struggling to regain its hold on power, enjoyed in such overwhelming measure during the rule of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. After Independence the Congress was the bulwark of the political system. There are many in the Congress who are vying for leadership but none with the charisma, the vision, and all-India appeal of Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. What is clear, however, is that India is undergoing a vast social upheaval.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh - the Raja of Manda - brought and kept together in the United Front a motley collection of anti-BJP and anti-Congress parties. In 1990, V. P. Singh, then Prime Minister, said: "In India the time has come when the whole political set-up has to be changed. We should have the courage to do it even if it means that several governments have to be thrown out. The country will not collapse. The idea that the central government is the nation is a myth. We have already paid a heavy price to perpetuate this myth. The government is not the nation and the fall of the central government will not lead to the break-up of the country." The political turmoil and uncertainty that India is passing through seems to bear out V. P. Singh's perception of events.

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