The Government’s reforms are too half-hearted. But Rahul Gandhi’s Congress is too amateurish and inept to hold it to account… in destroying itself through shifting to the left as the coterie around Rahul would like to see, the Congress could also take down India’s chances at reform with it, says Mihir S Sharma …
The Narendra Modi Government is as half-hearted as its leader is energetic. It is as tentative as he is transformative; its actions are as timid as his promises were unrestrained. This was underlined by two of the decisions that it took recently. First, it set a new formula for the pricing of natural gas discoveries in India. The formula, however, stopped short of also putting into place a transparent and de-politicised process for adjusting that price. After all, a “premium” was promised for natural gas discoveries in fields that are difficult to extract it from — which is, by a strange coincidence, exactly the sort of field that Reliance Industries claims it has been saddled with. This means, essentially, that bureaucrats or Ministers will set the premium, in response to requests and claims from the company that has discovered natural gas. This is not, to put it mildly, a particularly market-friendly or reformist vision.
Then there’s its step on coal “de-nationalisation” — oh wait, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley really doesn’t want us to say that has happened. And he is right. It hasn’t happened. The Government went to great pains to emphasise it had not really allowed private sector mining — merely decided on an ordinance that would allow for the status quo ante to be restored. It is a matter of great amusement to most people who look carefully at these issues that such steps are being sold as great reform, just as a website for inspectors was sold as labour law reform and an electronic attendance register for bureaucrats as administrative reform.
What is more worrying, though, is that the Government’s claim that these are major reforms is going unchallenged. Look — Governments, in general, are allowed to make this sort of outsize claim. The opposition exists to question their decision — to point out if and where it falls short, and whether it is a real change or not. Unfortunately, India does not have an opposition, and so the Government’s bombastic exaggerations are going unchallenged.
On a recent Sunday, as the results came in from elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, and the Congress party lost power in States it had held for 15 and 10 years respectively, the Congress’ supreme leaders were noticeably missing in action. The person responsible is Rahul Gandhi, and he was unavailable. Unlike the wild-eyed and malicious crazies online, I do not for a moment suppose he was holidaying somewhere pleasant. As it happens, it is clear he was visiting cyclone-hit parts of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. This was, no doubt, a nice thing to do. It is also colossally stupid to do it when your party is falling part, and your partymen want to hear from you.
True, that the Congress’ current leadership has shown itself catastrophically incompetent is one thing. That should bother nobody but them, and their own dwindling band of die-hards, who have more and more to forgive and less and less patience with which to do it. But that the Congress’ leadership is also intent on becoming the sort of mindless opposition that it justly criticised over the past decade should infuriate us all. Consider the Congress party’s reaction to the news that the Government had announced the “decontrol” of diesel prices — that they would henceforth be determined by market forces.
Diesel subsidies used to be one of the biggest holes in the Union Budget. But in January 2013, the last Government took the decision to move prices up gradually every month, till the per-litre subsidy was wiped out. That happened some months ago, actually, and the Government has only now implemented the last and least politically difficult step of the plan set into motion by its predecessor almost two years ago — a decision that, remember, caused the Government to be reduced to a minority. Even the official press release on diesel decontrol from this Government references the Cabinet decision taken by the last lot.
So you would think the Congress would want to hang around insisting it got the credit for ending the diesel problem, right? You would be wrong. The timeless geniuses who are currently running India’s oldest party repeatedly into various walls instead went with the “It’s An Anti-People Plot” gambit. Is that official party policy? Would the Congress really like to run away from one of its achievements while in power to seek refuge instead in the kind of reflexive “pro-poor” idiocy that has made it a marginal force in almost every Indian State of consequence?
I know Manmohan Singh has earned his retirement. But surely his Ministers are capable of turning up to point out the reform limitations of the current Government?
Remember P Chidambaram? (Tall gentleman, used to be Finance Minister.) Why was he not claiming he had fixed diesel prices, not Arun Jaitley? Where was M Veerappa Moily, former Petroleum Minister? Over the weekend, even as Modi ordered his Ministers to go on television, the entire Congress front bench was missing in action — following their leader’s example.
Rahul is leading this Congress so amateurishly, and from so very far behind the front line, that he has made a barely competent Cabinet look superbly professional. Rahul’s silence on policy issues was barely defensible when his party was in power. There at least he could claim that he would undermine the Prime Minister if he spoke. He may not have noticed yet, but the Congress is no longer in power. The longer he runs away from policy issues to play “NGO-NGO” in The Real India (copyright owned by the Nehru-Gandhi Family), the more people will see through that excuse and conclude he just has no vision to offer India. Sadly, if the Congress is stupid enough to think that Dalits, Muslims and The Poor are enough to send it triumphantly back to power in a few years, they will hurt more than themselves.
Dalits are abandoning the Congress — look at the way the Dera Sacha Sauda, a Dalit Sikh religious organisation, chose to endorse the Bharatiya Janata Party in Haryana this time, instead of the Congress. Muslims are abandoning the Congress — look at the way Asaduddin Owaisi’s parochial Muslim party won its first seats outside Hyderabad in this election. And The Poor will abandon the Congress if it offers them only empathy and visits from its heir, and no concrete paths to prosperity. But in destroying itself through shifting to the left as the coterie around Rahul would like to see, the Congress could also take down India’s chances at reform with it. It would push the Government to the left, towards greater caution, instead of greater radicalism. It would choose obstruction and guile, rather than open and constructive criticism. It would hurt all our futures, since we need a sensible liberal opposition and not another set of noisy Communists.
If it is to help reform India, the Congress needs to reform itself. And to reform itself, it needs to get rid of its leader. I wrote some years ago that the Congress should sack Rahul, for its own sake. I am now forced to conclude that the Congress needs to sack Rahul for everyone’s sake.