By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - With stuttering economic growth, renewed agitation for "strong" anti-corruption laws, the rupee in a deep dive and controversy-ravaged cabinet ministers, December is turning into more a month of ferment than festive good cheer for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his beleaguered government.
Yet, as is often the case with troubles, much on Manmohan's plate appears to be self-cooked. Common Sense Coalition Courtesies might be a helpful book for Santa Claus to dump in his stocking; Manmohan seems to be ignoring painful lessons from the controversial India-United States civilian nuclear deal of 2008, and reaping bitter fruits.
Three years ago, Manmohan defied his United Progressive Alliance coalition partners and dissenting voices within his own Congress party, insisted he knew what was best for the country and adamantly pushed for the nuclear deal. It resulted in him facing a vote of no confidence in parliament in July 2008, scraping through to win by 275 to 256 votes. Investigations are underway over trunk loads of cash allegedly used in bribes to bail out the government.
For all the troubles of the country wrung through one of the most divisive issues in decades, the nuclear deal is still stuck in the mire - except for India being able to more easily buy uranium abroad, such as from Australia. Nuclear plant equipment suppliers are scared away by the unavoidable civil liability clause in the nuclear deal that could have them heavily sued in the event of accidents.
Publicized protests at the sites of new nuclear plants, such as at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, southern India, indicate not everyone as yet shares Manmohan's vision for meeting India's power needs.
Three years later, Manmohan and the Congress party again unilaterally announced a new foreign direct investment (FDI) policy that would allow international retail giants to stride into the country, an issue directly affecting the livelihoods of millions.
That earned similar negative results, and his government had to retreat ignominiously from the November 24 announcement within a week, after key allies like Trinamul Congress from West Bengal made clear that early general elections were preferable to leaving India's food supply chain at the mercy of multinationals.
"The decision to permit 51% foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail trade is suspended until a consensus is developed through consultations among various stakeholders," Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told an agitated parliament on December 7, a tacit admission that the no-small matter was not adequately discussed with coalition allies and state governments.
The FDI episode showed both pluses and perils of a prime minister appointed, not elected by popular vote. Manmohan does not sit among the 552 directly elected members of the Lok Sabha (Lower House), but represents the Assam constituency in the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha, the second house of parliament. He can make decisions without worrying about election campaign funds, but can also make decisions without feeling the pulse of the electorate. Both the nuclear deal and the FDI in retail aroused more controversy than public support.
Manmohan though appears not above politics of convenience. He has not yet explained why he opposed FDI in retail in 2002, when he was the opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha. Neither has the present opposition Bharatiya Janata Party explained why it is now kicking up a ruckus over multinationals taking over grocery stores when it wanted to let FDI in retail while ruling the government nine years ago.
The FDI commotion shows either a bit of political hypocrisy, or how India's more crucial policy directions have an overall consistency beyond political affiliations. It may also show how powerful yet subtle forces at work can influence if not control critical events and men in jobs that affect millions of lives.
Which is why some upheavals in wintry December - even the fleeing chunk of foreign funds being one cause for the rupee falling to a record 53-plus against the US dollar - might be like churning of ingredients in a Christmas pudding: the process involves vigorous stirring and shaking, but the long-term baked result could be all right.
Anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare has added to the churning, threatening to agitate again from December 27 to January 5, if parliament does pass his version of the Lokpal anti-corruption ombudsman law.
The cabinet this week has approved the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, the Grievances Redressal Bill 2011 and the Whistleblowers' Bill - all to check corruption at various levels of governance. But Hazare wants everyone including the prime minister and the Central Bureau of Investigation, the apex crime investigative body, all under one anti-corruption body.
Others have concerns about too much power vested in one small group of appointed people manning the Lokpal, or anti-corruption ombudsman entities.
A Hindustan Times opinion poll across 12 cities published on December 15 had 43% respondents saying they did not agree with Hazare's demand that parliament pass law according to his exact specifications, 37% were okay with it and 20% were not sure.
Getting the parliament doctor to attend to the corruption patient may be good enough, but the problem is in Hazare and his colleagues declaring their distrust of the doctor. So they dictate the exact treatment the doctor has to prescribe. This medicine, Hazare and Co assures one and all, will protect everyone from the corruption cancer. But the risk is of a weak government being forced to pass the wrong medicine, and Hazare and Co producing a cure more dangerous than the disease.
A prime minister directly elected by the people would have respectfully listened to Hazare, as to any other lobbying group, but remembered the overall perspective of the constitutional mandate, and not given the disproportionate attention Manmohan Singh has. His government cooked itself this trouble by initially involving Hazare and Co in drafting the Lokpal bill, instead of merely receiving their suggestions.
Manmohan and his cabinet continue failing to ask bullying anti-corruption activists the all important question: "Who exactly do you represent and what is the proof of it? Do you speak for yourself as individual citizens? Or do you represent some non-governmental organizations, or the interests of those funding your organizations?"
Neither would a stronger, cleaner cabinet of ministers have panicked as much in dealing with an anti-corruption campaign, nor indulged in petty-minded vindictiveness as Manmohan Singh's government has - such as filing all manner of dubious corruption and tax evasion cases against Hazare's colleagues.
Yet given the protection from guardian forces on national duty, corruption in daily life is getting unprecedented focus in India in this socio-political churning. The country has lots to gain even if one individual strongly resolves not to ask, take or give a bribe all his life.
This individual commitment to truth and honesty, not merely parliamentary laws or punishment Hazare advocates, is actually best medicine, friend and refuge - the reason why someone born 2,011 years ago chose to be crucified alive rather than give up on the truth, and have the inspiring courage, purity of equanimity and compassion to forgive those torturing him to death.....