Millennium Post

India at crossroads

The 15th Lok Sabha was consigned to history after so much of disgrace was embedded in parliamentary annals and the combatants – a weak government surviving on sufferance and a disruptive opposition – struck platitudinous notes for last rites before bringing down the curtain. There is still some hope left for Parliamentary democracy in India but much would depend on the character of the new government and the elected representatives.

With customary grace, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after all the frustration at home and from a world declining to believe the theory of India’s economic woes stemming from global uncertainties, hoped that the forthcoming elections would throw up ‘a new sense of consensus’ to take the country to ‘new pathways’.

But the implied claim for his government to have taken ‘difficult’ decision on Telangana – with all the tumult, shutdowns and pepper sprays in the House that followed – cannot stand scrutiny from the point of view of a more democratic, transparent and even-handed handling of a highly emotive issue involving the division of potentially one of the most dynamic states.

That sheer political opportunism before the elections influenced the Congress leadership to make an abrupt move – however long the quest for a Telangana statehood might have been – without ensuring  at the same time a fair deal satisfactory to the rest of AP – Seemandhra – bespoke an arbitrariness on the part of the so-called Congress High Command.

In Telangana itself, having agreed to its creation, Sonia Gandhi is finding the TRS leader, K Chandrasekara Rao, a tough customer, not ready for merger of his part, and hard bargaining for seats lies ahead. All that the Congress and UPA government could finally do has been a salvage operation designed to avert a total rout in Seemandhra, which unwisely was left in the lurch in the wake of the Telangana announcement.

The prime minister has offered ‘special category’ status for the new AP for five years – a point seized on instantly by Bihar and Jharkhand to demand similar treatment for their states. A development package for the backward regions of the successor state in Rayalaseema and northern coastal districts is also mentioned in the PM statement. But the division of water and power resources and assets and liabilities of existing Andhra Pradesh between the two states would pose major problems in the near future.

How far the UPA commitments bind the next government and how it would restore a degree of harmony lost under UPA in the centre-state relations remains to be seen. Thus, the ‘difficult’ decision that Manmohan Singh talked of, only marks the beginning of more difficulties ahead. Let alone Telangana, many of the steps that the government have promised or taken would not have been there were it sure of a return to office.

Finance Minister Chidambaram in winding up his Interim Budget set out 10 priorities for the next government, which mostly reflected the failure of UPA to make tangible progress on this essential agenda. Governance failure had set in, in the early phase of UPA-II, and there followed corruption cases, controversies and dithering on not only domestic problems but even more tellingly on the
security and foreign policy fronts.

Meanwhile, the macro-economic stability was getting eroded. Rightly or wrongly, UPA-II has botched issues with both USA and some of the leading European nations – India’s major trading partners – and differences and disputes were allowed to fester, apparently to make an impression on the electorate as to how it was withstanding external pressures in upholding national interests. The way the Italian marines case has dragged on is apparently keeping the Keralite sensitivity in view before the elections.

India’s trade and investment regime has thrown up a series of disputes with these western powers over the country’s allegedly restrictive provisions and ‘inadequate’ protection of intellectual property rights. USA has raised a few issues against India before WTO dispute settlement body while EU has deferred the conclusion of the negotiated bilateral free trade and investment agreement. Foreign investors in general have also become more wary pending the outcome of the Parliamentary elections amid anticipations of an imminent change of government mid-year.

Lately, the Obama Administration has opened a dialogue with the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi with the US Ambassador Nancy Powell calling on him at Gandhinagar. It signals a policy shift after having denied visa for a Modi visit to USA in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002. US official sources maintain the meeting with Modi was part of ‘concrete outreach’ to senior politicians and business leaders reviewing Indo-US relations in general but undoubtedly, it could only be in the context of the forthcoming elections.

The toughness that government continues to bring into play in dealing with the sole superpower at present, beginning with the Khobhragade episode, is in sharp contrast to its relatively weak posturing vis-a-vis China in the matter of assertion of India’s vital interests. China has not only prolonged the border dispute but has also been on an expansionist  pursuit  in defence of what it calls its ‘core’ interests  and sovereignty over the seas impinging on the maritime rights of other nations and building a string of bases in the Indian Ocean.

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