governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Enter Rahul the Rudder

There is an ill wind blowing in India which is sweeping away established institutional norms. This is a pity because the Indian political architecture is a copy of the UK system which has no constitution to guide it and works solely on the basis of conventions. Take the convention of sanctity of cabinet decisions or for that matter the broader issue of sanctity of agreement/contract. In the context of the criminal bachao ordinance neither means much. A cabinet decision is being overruled by someone outside the cabinet, albeit in public interest. An agreement between the UPA allies is being broken unilaterally. On the face of it, this is actually a very positive “jhadu” (broom) sweeping the denizens of Lutyens Delhi. Cabinet decisions and agreements, which are against public interest, clearly need to be reconsidered. So who are we aam admis and aurats to complain when this happens? And why?

The devil as usual is in the detail. Had the PM, or any member of the cabinet, done a group rethink and then moved to withdraw the criminal bachao ordinance on their own, we would all have applauded them. Now that they are doing so under the duress of Rahul illustrates two points. First Rahul should be a part of the cabinet if his personal opinion aired publicly is more important than the collective wisdom and integrity of the cabinet. Second, a cabinet which is led by the nose from outside and meekly abides by the decisions of external actors is no cabinet at all. Today the rethink is in public interest. Tomorrow it could be against the public interest. Who shall the national hold responsible for decision making? A puppet cabinet reduces us to the level of a banana republic not an emerging super power.

The Congress party is clearly going through tough times reconciling the sophisticated shadow play between power and position, devised by Mrs. Gandhi on the one hand and on the other the strengthening voice of the party’s natural heir: Rahul Gandhi. Shashi Tharoor, recently reverted to being a writer, rather than a politician, on a TV show when he admitted that the Congress has a special place for the Gandhi’s, no secret to anybody, and anyone who was uncomfortable with that bottom line should either leave or not join the Congress. Frank and forthright as he used to be, perhaps emboldened by Rahul’s “coming out” on the criminal bachao ordinance.

Who are we to quibble about how to manage the Congress party? Or any other party for that matter? The only problem is that we are not talking of Congress party here. The issue before the cabinet of the government is the oath sworn by any Minister in the Government of India. See the oath below

“….I will do right to all manner of people in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without fear or favor, affection or ill-will

If the cabinet acted in accordance with the oath in the first instance, when it decided to request the President to approve the ordinance, then it cannot now possibly convincingly argue that the withdrawal is also in the same spirit. Clearly public sentiment is against the ordinance and the President is unlikely to approve, it even if Rahul changes his mind. It is prudent therefore for the government to withdraw the ordinance. The question is what are the implications if it does so?

More significantly it is also clear that the entire cabinet has neglected to act “without fear or favor or affection” In fact it has blatantly acted in a partisan manner twice. Once by clearing the proposed ordinance it decided to protect the narrow interests of criminals in Parliament. Second by withdrawing the bill it acted not in exercise of its wisdom and in an impartial manner but at the behest of a non-statutory but clearly powerful entity. In bowing to the informal power of Rahul the entire cabinet is guilty of betraying the oath they took at the time of joining office.

The only honorable way out is for the entire cabinet to resign led by the PM and for the Congress and its UPA allies to reconstitute the government.

We are luckier than the US where they have a President but no government. We have an entire functioning government of babus working away at their tasks. Is it not time to give them Ministers they can trust and work with? It is difficult enough in government to attribute blame to anyone. The concept of effective sanctions to punish, but also to deter future transgressions, is missing in most governments. With an added shadow play of “informal” power the concept of sanctions disappears completely. More importantly if leaders in positions of authority are perceived to be powerless, “formal” governance systems freeze and its open season for tricksters, scamsters and much worse. This is clearly Rahul’s government. He must act now and take change formally. Dr Singh has already accepted that we would willingly work under Rahul since he is a professional without political ego. Sailing with the wind is pleasant and a good, environmentally friendly, principle but a sail boat needs a rudder steering it.   Image

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