Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Government wriggles out of another crisis

BY P. Raman

The UPA government may have finally come out of the crisis triggered by the Nanavati commission report on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots with minor bruises. But that can only be a poor consolation for an otherwise crisis- prone government.

Its style of functioning and its casual approach to issues with serious political consequences can create similar crises any time in future. But for the Sonia establishment’s timely intervention, last week’s confrontation might have pushed the Manmohan Singh government to the brink.

The sad side of the story has been that as acrimony and tension marked by street protests and emotional outbursts against the ruling party raged, those around the prime minister took it as opposition’s routine Parliament `drama’.

The Congress operatives engaged in crisis management were aghast to find the government’s abiding faith in the perceived disarray of the opposition and the compulsions of the Left to back the government whatever provocations.

There were even suggestions that if the party refused to buckle under pressure, the opposition protests will die down on its own. If true, it simply highlights the poor political reflex when a first rate political challenge with all its attributes was gathering momentum.

One version has it that while Sonia’s emissaries were struggling to diffuse the crisis, the prime minister himself was busy with documents on energy strategy which were to be endorsed at the next day’s cabinet meeting.

This was after the DMK, NCP and RJD had turned against the government’s action taken report. It did not need any special political insight to perceive the total isolation of the Congress within the UPA. The Left was furious at the way the prime minister had allowed the crisis to drift.

Initially, the Sonia establishment was hesitant to intervene on the hope that the initiative will come from the government side. The organizational wing did not have any idea about the kind of ATR being planned and the potency of the ammunition it could provide to the political rivals in Punjab and an issue-hungry Opposition in Parliament.

The Nanavati report remained with the government for nearly six months. During the discussions among the cabinet colleagues, the prime minister and home minister suggested it was a dead issue and there was no need for any further action. And the colleagues wisely preferred not to contest it.

The present home minister is not exactly known for his administrative excellence and political acumen. The drafting of the ATR was left to the bureaucrats who apparently took a formal and legalistic view.

Being a `fellow Sikh’ (as Sushma Swaraj and V.K. Malhotra described) did not make Manmohan Singh to anticipate the devastating implications. There are others like Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath with sharp political antenna.

The former was in the group of ministers that had finally tackled the ATR controversy. Despite this, the colleagues chose to follow a minimum deterrent policy to avoid creating the impression that they were up to create any discord.

Moreover, signals from 10 Janpath has always been to back the PM at any cost. The Sonia establishment specially wanted to ward off allegations of a `super PM’ out to remote-control a `puppet PM’. The Congress establishment finally woke up to the gathering cloud only after the Akalis forced an adjournment motion and the Left decided to challenge the ATR.

A meeting of the `core group’ of the party and government was hurriedly called to sort out the crisis. Consisting of Sonia Gandhi and her close aides from the Congress establishment, the `core group’ without a well-defined membership has Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, etc in it.

The group was evolved as a super body to keep a watch on the working of the government and its policies. However, it meets only after a crisis crops up and things go out of the PM’s control. Had the prime minister or home minister made it a point to involve this super body prior to political storm gathered, the whole crisis might have possibly been averted.

After the `core group’s meeting, a team comprising Ambica Soni, Ahmed Patel and two other MPs were sent to discuss how the ruffled feathers could be calmed. Incidentally, the prime minister only watched the trouble shooting endeavors without taking a direct role.

As a result, the whole job of bringing round Jagdish Tytler was left to political emissaries, and Pranab Mukherjee finally executed the decision. The prime minister got alerted only after the BJP’s `fellow Sikh’ remarks. Then he turned the tide with his emotion-charged apology.

Even after this, Tytler submitted his resignation from the cabinet not to the prime minister as it should have been, but to Sonia Gandhi who promptly passed it on to Manmohan Singh for acceptance. In contrast, the other victim Sajjan Kumar submitted his resignation from the development board to his chief minister directly.

The Nanavati report and the subsequent political crisis have once again exposed the mismatch between the Manmohan Singh government and the Congress organization. The disconnect between the government’s concept of development and that of the voters on the ground is so stark.

Any one with a little political foresight might have anticipated the Sikh protests at a time when terrorism inPunjab has been showing signs of revival. It has been the total absence of the political instinct that had led to such embarrassments to the government.

The Manmohan Singh government through its thoughtless actions first resorts to a misadventure and push the coalition into a crisis and then seek the Sonia establishment’s help to get it retrieved itself. This had happened in Goa, Jhakhand cases and in the case of BHEL disinvestment.

Lack of political finesse could be compensated only by bringing in an institutional mechanism like the `core group’ into play for a more mature, foolproof results. The weak-PM complex should not come in the way of such a saner system.

On the other, backing of the `core group’ will give more acceptability and a seal of authority to the government decisions on politically risky issues. Within the Congress among its MPs, ministers and senior functionaries a common refrain is that the incumbent prime minister’s sole concern is the reform schedule.

Those who meet him on serious issues that may hurt the party politically, get a cool hearing. But the moment you talk about reform and globalization he gets back to attention. This is what a very active Congress MP says.

Aftermath of the Nanavati report once again warns the Congress about the UPA government’s haphazard political management.

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