Monday, September 01, 2008

In praise of grand gestures, August 10, 2008

On a soggy monsoon afternoon last week I found myself in the company of not just one but two finance ministers, P.Chidambaram and Jaswant Singh, at the launch of a book by the admirable Swaminathan Aiyar. An unfailing rule for spreading happiness in the political class is to flatter—there is no limit to how much one can boost the human ego. I chose, however, a less comfortable course and quizzed the worthy politicians about the painfully slow pace of reforms. When both BJP and Congress agree on the major reforms, why can’t we insulate them from the football of competitive politics?

With the Left finally off its back, the Congress’ dream team wants to redeem some honour after four years of non-performance. Chidambaram picked up the ball and recalled how it had taken over five years to pass the insurance bill when it should have taken five months. When it was finally done, the NDA capped the foreign equity at 26% even though it had earlier killed the same bill because it was opposed to 20%. Jaswant Singh, normally quite charming, seemed bewildered and defensive. Perhaps, it was Sushma Swaraj’s outrageous statement that had put him out of sorts. When she declared that the BJP would not help pass the pending reforms, she was actually saying that she did not care about the lives of ordinary Indians.

The Congress, of course, is no better when it is in the opposition. Both parties should memorize Arun Shourie’s precept—the Opposition should never oppose anything it would itself do in office. Later over tea, the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar, with classic Doon School bluster, reproached me for harbouring undemocratic temptations. If he had listened, I would have told him that many democratic countries pursue bipartisan policies when national interest is at stake. In the UK, the Northern Ireland issue was always above politics and prime ministers always kept Opposition leaders informed. The unwieldy US Congress has an unwritten rule, ‘politics stops at the shore’. Thus, bipartisanship rapidly delivered the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after the World War II; Homeland Security after the 9/11 attack; and the sub-prime mortgage bailout this year.

The Nuclear Deal was one such moment in India’s history. It was less about energy and more about national security. Both the BJP and the Congress agreed on its essentials. Yet it became hostage to tragic politics. Bipartisan institutions could have spared us the cash-for-votes scandal and saved the political class’ image. Democracy does not have to mean permanent conflict. The Opposition does not have to only oppose. Mamata Banerjee is a failure because voters think that she only knows how to oppose. Ultimately, cooperation reflects character.

The Prime Minister showed statesman this week in reaching out to the Opposition on the Amarnath issue. Emboldened by this, he should now prime-move a bipartisan summit with key Opposition leaders, seeking agreement on an economic reforms slate over 200 days. The BJP knows at heart that pensions, insurance, banking are as much about national interest as preventing terrorism. The secret is to take the competitive sting out of the process. With this agreement in hand, Manmohan Singh should repeat what he did in July 1991. He should institutionalize an implementation mechanism inside the PMO for monitoring weekly progress. I am thinking of the famous Thursday Meetings of the economic secretaries, which were coordinated by AN Varma, Narasimha Rao’s principal secretary—it was the crucial instrument for implementing reforms at an unprecedented pace in 1991. This is the way to answer our mini-9/11 terrorists. India’s destiny will not be stopped by anyone.

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