Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Congress has more work to do than its Government….

The Congress Working Committee (CWC) recently ticked off the government, blaming it for policy paralysis and inflation, both of which were apparently hurting the party’s electoral prospects. Made me wonder why the CWC didn’t meet more often, if pushing the government could be so easily achieved! Made me also wonder if the Congress wasn’t pushing the blame on the government, without taking its fair share on itself.

After all, the Government (the Executive) can only do so much. The Government has prepared the road map for several new policy pieces. The Pension reforms are ready and have been whetted by the Standing Committee. The Government has already agreed to accept the BJP’s recommendations and get it on board. Likewise, the Government has readied its plans to allow FDI in multi-brand retail; in fact, it went ahead and made the announcement a few months back. Ditto with reforms in the Banking and Insurance sectors, Land Reforms, Mining etc etc. In all these cases, the Government has done its bit. However, for purely political reasons, policy announcements and law making have been held back. This is where the party has to come in. This is where Sonia Gandhi has to start to act.

The Congress (the party) has to strategize on how to get the Government’s initiatives passed in Parliament (if required) or executed in practice (if Parliamentary approval is not required). It’s first and foremost task is to manage Mamata. Mamata has been the biggest roadblock for the UPA and her more-left-than-the-Left attitude has completely derailed all reforms. The words “FDI” are like a red rag for Mamata. More importantly, Mamata’s tantrums and protests have given the BJP a handy excuse to stonewall any efforts by the Government to move ahead. This is a fabulous situation to be in for the BJP when no policy making gets done (exactly to its liking), but it needs to take no blame. Mamata’s association with the UPA doesn’t help the UPA one bit, except perhaps in notionally keeping it afloat. Yet, sidetracking Mamata and sinking the Government cannot be a solution either. This is where the Congress President has to take her share of the responsibility. It has to either find a way to handle Mamata or get new allies on board.

The Congress has to align with the Samajwadi Party in bringing Mamata to toe its line. The alliance with SP is a natural one, as I have written earlier. The SP’s main turf is UP; the Congress’s all of India. The SP’s crown prince Akhilesh Yadav would be largely content (at least for now) in being the UP CM. The Congress’s crown prince has no intentions of being CM and would like to be PM. The Congress is weak in UP; the SP oscillates from being the strongest to being the 2nd strongest; either way it is a force to reckon with in the state. Both the Congress and the SP consider the BJP to be the primary competitor. The SP is a more natural ally of the Congress than perhaps Mamata is. The alliance with SP however has its problems. The Congress has to get the 20 seats it got from UP if it has to retain anywhere close to a leadership position in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. That is where the problem starts. It wants to grow in UP; but that limits its ability to align with the SP and hence its current performance. If it aligns with the SP now, it will no doubt suffer in 2014.

The Congress also needs to learn to communicate much better as a party. Its spokespeople don’t inspire confidence. Renuka Chowdhury cannot get over her visual jhatkas and matkas and half the time ends up saying “Oh please” when an aggressive Ravi Shankar Prasad or Nirmala Seetaraman push their point hard. At present the only decent spokesperson of the Congress is Ashwani Kumar. All the earlier spokespeople like Manish Tewari, Jayanthi Natarajan and Abhishek Manu Singhvi have gone. But more important than the spokespeople are the people who run the party. Why can’t Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi talk to the media more often, explaining their point of view? In any case, the Government hardly talks – with the likes of the PM, the foreign minister, the defence minister, the I&B minister, and most of the times the finance minister refusing to talk on subjects political. With both the party and the Government not communicating, it appears that governance has gone into a deep freeze.

The Congress also has to step in to rein in the Government as it swings the other way (as a pendulum) on matters where it has been stung hard by the CAG and the SC. Take 2G spectrum auctions for instance. Now the SC has said that the FCFS policy was wrong and that auctions should be conducted. I don’t agree with this. The Government also has challenged this order through a Presidential reference. But even if auctions have to be conducted, does the Government have to go so far as to make 2G into a money making exercise? Today’s TOI editorial correctly suggests that maximizing revenues cannot be the sole objective of the Government. For all the flak that it has got in giving away spectrum cheap (a good policy decision), the fact remains that the UPA has helped grow teledensity by nearly 4 times than what existed in 2004. Without cheap spectrum and the consequent cheap call rates, this revolution would not have happened. The government has to increase the spectrum made available for auctions, has to keep reserve prices low and has to ensure that while spectrum is allocated efficiently through auctions, the price structure does not change so drastically that the revolution gets undone. Likewise with coal blocks. I agree with giving coal blocks away cheaply, as long as the beneficiary doesn’t make super normal profits. That’s the case with all power companies that have got these coal blocks free. None of them is reporting super normal profits; all of them have passed on the benefits in the form of cheap electricity tariffs. We need more electricity; we need cheap electricity; we still have 300 million Indians who do not have adequate electricity to lead even a bare minimum lifestyle. The Congress has to step in here, and prevent the Government from committing hara-kiri.

The real truth is that more than the Government, it is the Congress party that has to take the blame for the current situation that it finds itself in. More than the PM, it is Sonia Gandhi who has to act. Ideally, both the Government and the party need to tango together. But as the first step, it is the party that needs to start to move….

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