City City Bang Bang, Columns, Writing

The Power to do nothing

That running a coalition government is not easy has been made obvious enough by the experience of the UPA government. If in its first innings, it was felt that the overbearing presence of the Left was stifling; in fact, the second innings started with a big sense of relief that the monkey was finally off the governments’ back. Of course as it turns out, the government’s back seems to be laden with an entire zoo, given the behaviour of its allies. The implicit logic for the government’s many capitulations is that coalitions by their very nature, require a spirit of compromise, a willingness to accommodate the other side even when there is disagreement about some issues. Of course, what we are seeing now, is a complete breakdown of almost all government action. None of the big initiatives taken by the UPA government have managed to sneak out into reality, not the Lokpal, not the NCTC, not the allowing of FDI in retail, not even a routine hike in rail fares.

The question that arises is if there is any point at which power becomes dysfunctional. The implicit legitimacy of hanging on to power by successive acts of compromise must surely reach a stage where any more accommodation of the other side makes the very idea of being in power redundant. Worse, the compulsions of staying in power might push the government not only towards inaction, of which India has a long and glorious history, but of action with long-term and potentially far-reaching consequences.

The latest policy decision- to vote for the resolution passed against Sri Lanka in the UN, is one such potential landmine. It would be entirely legitimate for India to have acted as it did if the move came out of a genuine belief in its position. There is enough hard evidence that shows that gross violations of human rights occurred in the assault against the LTTE; for a neutral country to take a moral view on this issue is entirely understandable. In this case of course, India is hardly a neutral country; it has played a key role in the entire affair and thus needs to conduct itself with extreme caution. Also, moral outrage in a Pandora’s boxful of vulnerability as far as India is concerned. Its actions in handling local insurgencies is far from exemplary and its position on other neighbouring countries like Myanmar for instance tells us that it has in the past chosen pragmatic stances over moral ones. Battling an insurgency particularly one that uses terror as its primary weapon is a complex question, and India is well aware of the costs that need to be paid. The luxury of a detached moral high ground is not really available to India.

To barter away a long-term strategic position, whatever its moral basis, for a very questionable short-term advantage (it is not clear that the DMK is in a position to make any real threats given its condition today) is an act of extreme opportunism. The problem is not so much with the action itself, but with the motivations that have guided it. Given that the current government will find it very difficult if not impossible to get any policy action passed, the longer it stays in power, the more damage it can do, both to itself and to the larger national interest. The longer it stays in a lame duck state, a spectacle of abject helplessness, pummelled on all sides by the opposition and allies alike, the more damage it does to its chances in the next elections. In the case of the Congress, the spectre of the dimming of the Gandhi-Nehru halo now seems like a real one, and any sign of weakness at the top can potentially trigger off a free-for-all within the party. The Congress uses its dynasty to keep itself in one piece; otherwise there is little by way of ideological glue that holds its weak centrism together. Also, the longer this government stays in power in its current state, all the news around it is likely to be negative. We will only hear of how it got stymied, and as it freezes into inaction, afraid to lift a finger lest it be chopped off, news channels, hungry for something to masticate, will focus on scams and scandals, of which we seem to have an inexhaustible supply. More cynically and perhaps most importantly, the one benefit of power; its ability to generate money has also dried up given the intense scrutiny that all new actions are under.

Totalling up the balance sheet, there seem to very few advantages to staying in power. No possibility of any affirmative legislative action, the chance of being forced to take damaging decisions, the ignominy of looking limp and utterly helpless, the prospect of diminishing the aura around key leaders, the likelihood of running out of allies, the loss of self-confidence and belief within the party and of course the rapidly reducing opportunities to make money.

Given this scenario, mid-term elections may not be such a bad thing for the UPA. It may not go into the elections believing that it can win but it can potentially limit the damage to its prospects that might occur if it waits in this condition till 2014. Alternatively, it can choose to strike a temporary deal with a party like the SP, give itself a short lease of life and go out with its legislative guns blazing. That way, it can go into the elections with a sense of martyrdom, having failed in its ambitious plans because of the intransigence of its allies. Given the track record of the present government such decisive action seems unlikely. Slow decay and inglorious death seems be on the menu.