26 May 2014

NOTE OF CAUTION - A majority in Parliament is not enough

Commentarao: S.L. Rao 

The prime minister and his initial list of ministers will be sworn in today. In Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party has its own majority and an overwhelming one with its allies. The prime minister knows that this must not induce complacency. There is much to be done and achieved quickly. Implementing new policies to revive the economy is an urgent imperative. It is most urgent to dampen inflation. Faster and more balanced economic growth, substantial additions to employment, infrastructure maintenance and development, railways, roads, inland waterways, airports, electricity generation, transmission and distribution, increasing domestic oil and gas supplies, as also supply of coal, rural and industrial development, massive inflows of domestic and foreign investment, and restoring the balance in the current account are some priority areas. For this, he must appoint qualified and hard-working ministers and bureaucrats, and change the system of accountability while improving coordination in the government.

What are the pitfalls that could prevent speedy policy-making and implementation?

Narendra Modi is not the man to appoint people to jobs because of pressure or political considerations. He knows that he has only a year, or at most two, before an expectant electorate, rises in anger against him. To perform, he must have the right people and quickly change the organizational structure of the government.

Modi must be aware that despite the party’s majority, his government does not represent the whole of India. The BJP’s overwhelming majority in Parliament has been given by only 31 per cent of votes cast by 66 per cent of the population of voting age. Like most governments in a “first past the post” electoral system, the Modi government actually represents only a minority of the population. There is therefore a large number who are not followers of the BJP and might oppose its government’s policies. The Modi government must make a special effort to carry them along.

Further, the BJP is detested and feared by millions of Muslims. It has no Muslims among its parliamentarians while the total number of Muslim parliamentarians has actually dropped to 22. The Modi government must announce some measures soon to reach out. The number of women in this Parliament has crept up to 61, the BJP contributing 28 of them. Apart from talk, the BJP government must immediately pass the women’s reservation bill and those related to women’s safety, rights and so on.

The BJP is non-existent in south India except for small numbers in Karnataka and Kerala. A self-confident and egotistic leader like J. Jayalalithaa could, if thwarted, revive the North-South conflict of over fifty years ago. A further aggravation is the north Indian (Hindi-speaking) composition of the BJP leadership (except for a politically-ineffectual M. Venkaiah Naidu). It is imperative for this government to induct southern faces in important positions. Ideally, Modi should induct the most powerful south Indian politician, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu with 37 seats in Parliament, as the deputy prime minister.

By persuading her to join the government, Modi could dilute the hostility to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. A key feature of Modi’s foreign policy is to get close to east Asia (particularly Japan and China with vast foreign exchange reserves). Japan has been a major investor in Gujarat. Modi knows that his plans for infrastructure development require vast funds. Investment by these countries with their low interest rates would also bring India closer to them. But he must first demonstrate that India is a regional power, with good relations with south Asian nations.

The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader is a female version of Modi — a loner, reclusive, confiding in no one, very articulate, a good administrator, self-obsessed, and very status-conscious. She has also been mercurial and has, without cause, pulled the first Atal Bihari Vajpayee government down. A plum post and the fact that the National Democratic Alliance does not need her for a majority, might make her cooperative.

The other lady (with 34 seats) is the erratic and temperamental Mamata Banerjee. She has, so far, disrupted improved relations with Bangladesh by holding up the Teesta accord. In the next elections in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed may lose to Begum Khaleda Zia, whose hostility towards India is well-known. This is one chance for India before Khaleda Zia and her fundamentalist friends take over the Bangladesh government. But Banerjee could possibly be prevailed upon. West Bengal is groaning under a mountain of debt. It is in the power of the Centre to ease its pain. A Bangladesh accord could also, once more, restore the role of the Bramhaputra as a gateway to Assam and the Northeast, whose development is held up by the difficulties of transporting heavy equipment through the “chicken neck” that is the present route around Bangladesh.

Getting these two ladies to work with the NDA government also improves the NDA’s numbers in the Rajya Sabha, where presently it has only 64 (74 if it nominates the 10 allowed), members out of 245. Of course, the innovative solution of more joint sittings of the two Houses, for which there seems to be no bar, would enable the NDA to pass all its legislations. Even if the ladies come together to nominate a leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, their support in the Rajya Sabha would be useful.

In the last Parliament, the BJP disturbed normal functioning of the legislature and prevented the Congress government from pursuing its agenda. The Congress and the other opposition parties can be expected to do the same now. This could stall urgent legislation. To counter this, there has to be a strong Speaker, not the ineffective octogenarians such as L.K. Advani. It would be a bad mistake for the party to put him in that position. The Speaker must enforce discipline and get things done. Suspensions, evictions and stopping allowances are some of the methods the Speaker can use against erring members. With its steamroller majority, the NDA can afford Opposition walkouts when its members are suspended or evicted. A strong Speaker might be able to change the rules so that a member named by the Speaker cannot draw his allowances. But immediate and strong action can happen only with a strong and energetic Speaker.

Modi has two years to show the people of India that he can change the country by changing its economy. He can do this if there is not another global economic crisis, increased terror attacks from Pakistan, severe droughts and an uncooperative administration.

The global economy seems to be actually improving. Pakistan is an uncertain quantity. The speech of the Pakistan high commissioner welcoming Modi’s election had an iron fist in an iron glove, with barely suppressed threats. If there is an attack, we can expect Modi to retaliate. How that will develop is anybody’s guess. India has ample grain reserves and should be able to manage two drought years, but that will still hurt the economy. Modi must ensure a speedy and effective implementation of policies. The proposed combination of related ministries will improve coordination. If he introduces a time-bound target for outcomes from each bureaucrat, with penalties and rewards, he might improve administration.

A majority in Parliament is not enough. It has to be backed by a more efficient ministerial and administrative structure, policies worked out in a holistic fashion, continuous monitoring and evaluation — all matters in which Modi has amply demonstrated competence.

We are in for change and it will be quick.

The author is former director general, National Council of Applied Economic Research 

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