Thursday, December 08, 2011

Team Singh shoots itself in the foot yet again

Prime minister's FDI ideas smack of ideology, say critics

After the botchups with Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev in the summer this year, prime minister Manmohan Singh and his cabinet colleagues have once again showed themselves to be unenviably inept in handling a tough situation. As there were knee-jerk responses on the earlier occasions in this year of UPA II's misery, so it is ending with the government eating humble pie on the issue of foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail.

In the case of Anna Hazare, Singh and the government yielded ground after taking an initial tough stance. It ended in collaborating through the Joint Drafting Commitee (JDC) comptirisng five members of Hazare and four of his colleagues. Then there was the sorry episode of four of the cabinet ministers headed by none other than finance minister Pranab Mukherjee rushing to meet Baba Ramdev at the airport, followed by the huddle of minister Kapil Sibal and with the yoga teacher at a posh Delhi hotel which ended in a lathicharge at the Ramlila Maidan at midnight on a June day. The government did not really cover itself in glory on these two occasions.

When the cabinet decided to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail, it seemed that the government had at last found a substantial policy issue with its strong market flavour and a favourite of the economic reforms brigade which includes the prime minister himself. It also seemed to have populist ring to it with its apparent benefits to farmers that pleased the strategic Congress agrarians led by party general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Though there were differences between Congress and the prime minister's team in the case of Hazare and Ramdev, it was not so in the case of FDI in retail. Many in the party saw it as a good move to outflank the cantankerous opposition in the political circles and in civil society which had harried the party through the year. It was a short-lived high.

What the cabinet and Congress did not reckon with was the mercurial Mamata Banerjee and the TMC which stays with her like the lamb that follows Mary in the popular nursery rhyme. When Mukherjee lost his cool with his TMC coleague at the cabinet meeting he forgot that Banerjee was a tough nut to crack and it was her political instinct of what pleases public opinion that she will follow rather than the persuasive rational argument that Mukherjee could have hoped to come up with. There was the assumption, and it turned to be so wrong, that she would fall in line when it came to the crunch. Banerjee did not oblige.

The inevitable question comes up: how can a prudent Singh, a seasoned Mukherjee not take into account the loud oppposition that the decision on retail has triggered? Why is it that this government time and again embarrasses itself, with little or no help from the opposition parties in parliament and outside? What is the uncanny ineptness that Singh and his colleagues are so keen to give a public display of? In plain language, it is a case of being too clever by half.

The government should never have yielded ground to Hazare on the issue of Lokpal, because it has really tied itself up in knots with the man from Ralegan Siddhi chuckling in his sleeves all the while as the government tries hard to bring a Lokpal which will not please the civil society agitators and the political opposition. And it should have stuck to its decision on FDI in retail because in spite of its untested good and bad effects of modest proportions, it at least had the virtue of being clear and constructive in conception when everything else was muddled.

It is not that Manmohan Singh has remained a quintessential non-politician and that he does not heed to sound political advice. It is just that Singh wants to things his way. In the case of India-US civil nuclear deal, he succeeded. He thought he would in other issues as well. He is learning that it is not as simple as that. As a cabinet colleague of Singh and a CPI-M leader, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Singh was an ideologue and not a pragmatist. The communist leader said that media calls us (communists) ideologues but it is Singh who is one. Ideology spells trouble. The communists know it. What about Singh?

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