Lull before government takes on civil society? (Comment)

July 23rd, 2011 - 11:02 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh There is an uneasy sense of foreboding in India at present despite the surface calm. The prevailing stillness in the air seems to have affected nearly all aspects of life, especially politics and diplomacy.

Among those who have noted the drowsy torpidity are Maoists. According to an Intelligence Bureau (IB) report, they are planning to use the current political inertia and the consequent lethargy among the security forces to resume their offensive.

One possible reason for the somnolence is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s denial that he is a lame duck, which he made twice in four months, suggesting the charge had struck home. Home Minister P. Chidambaram too had spoken of the government’s ethical and governance deficits.

More recently, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the view that “nothing is moving, that we have given up” underlined the realisation among politicians of the perception of drift.

This opinion was reinforced during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit, which produced little of substance by way of policy decisions and aroused little interest in the media. As a television commentator observed, India-US ties appear to have attained the soporific characteristics of a “good marriage”.

In a way, Clinton’s advice to India to be more assertive confirmed New Delhi’s laidback foreign policy, which will have few admirers considering the prime minister and others have often referred to the country’s dangerous neighbourhood.

Related to the pervasive slackness is the fact that as many as 81 bills are pending before parliament. Yet, there is little chance of even a small percentage of them being passed during the monsoon session since most of the time of the house is likely to be taken up by the debate on the Lokpal bill.

Even if the government succeeds in pushing it through on the basis of the support of most political parties since none of them wants a powerful ombudsman scrutinizing their action, the furore which civil society activists will create outside the house is bound to cut into parliament’s time.

At the moment, however, even the activists seem to have been infected by the government’s sleepiness. Except for their leader, Anna Hazare’s threat of going on fast from Aug 16 - evidently because he is convinced that the bill will not reflect his views - the social workers have been quietly biding their time.

It is the same with the opposition. The Left is still licking its wounds after its recent electoral setbacks. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is unable to target the Congress on corruption as vigorously as before because of its own tainted Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who has again been indicted by the Karnataka Lokayukta, N. Santosh Hegde, a camp follower of Anna Hazare.

It is perhaps necessary to point out that if the Congress had all along been somewhat lackadaisical about the corruption charges against its ministers and party men, the reason was the realization that the BJP was not in a position to seriously threaten its position at the centre because of the sleaze in its own house and because of the unresolved leadership tussles at the top.

There is some good news, however, mainly in the agricultural sector where a record food production of 241 million tonnes has taken place with the wheat and pulses output touching 85.9 and 18 million tonnes, respectively. The high production has raised hopes of the country achieving its target of 280 million tonnes in 2020.

At the same time, there has been a marginal fall in the growth projections from nine percent to 8.6 percent. Inflation too will remain “persistently high”, in the words of the finance minister, till the end of the year.

The expected storm, however, after the present lull may not relate so much to high prices or Maoist depredations as to two things. One is the ability of civil society activists to revv up their anti-corruption agitation. And the other is the looming confrontation between the government and the Supreme Court over the latter’s perceived encroachment on the executive turf.

The two judgments which the government has challenged are about the court’s decision to take upon itself the task of investigating the amassing of black money abroad and the other is the order to disband the salwa judum, or the anti-Maoist vigilante groups, in Chhattisgarh.

Since the official view that the judiciary has exceeded its brief in these two cases has been supported by a section of the media, the government is likely to be emboldened to take on the Supreme Court with determination. This is all the more so because the court subsequently issued a kind of explanatory note about its salwa judum verdict in which it defended its criticism of the government’s “neo-liberal” economic policy, which was seen by some observers as an ideological rather than legal stance.

(23-07-2011-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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