Originally Published 2004-09-02 06:38:59 Published on Sep 02, 2004
By referring to the ¿unprecedented¿ parliamentary ruckus that marked his first 100 days in office and to globalisation in the same vein at the J R D Tata centenary celebrations in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have identified areas of concern not only for his party and Government but also for the nation as a whole.
Playing the Balancing Act
By referring to the 'unprecedented' parliamentary ruckus that marked his first 100 days in office and to globalisation in the same vein at the J R D Tata centenary celebrations in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have identified areas of concern not only for his party and Government but also for the nation as a whole. Given the composition of contemporary politics and economics, he needs to work within the parameters and perimeters set for him by others, and would have to produce results on more fronts than one. 

Yet, Manmohan Singh can take heart that no one else could have felt better in his place as Prime Minister. Nor had anyone since the late Rajiv Gandhi had felt so in close to 20 years. Reasons may vary, but all of them have, and would have felt uncomfortable over the daunting tasks, either of the political or the economic variety.

Sure enough, Manmohan Singh does not have an absolute majority for his party. It may also be true that he may not be at the helm if and when you have a party commanding an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Politics is also not this Prime Minister's cup of tea -- just as economics was that of his predecessors. They left economics to the 'experts' in their parties, and Manmohan Singh can leave politics to the political leadership of his party. His very choice justifies it, and also anticipates only that.

But then, Manmohan Singh cannot afford to fail the nation on the economic front, just as their respective parties could not afford a Vajpayee or a Narasimha Rao, an Indira Gandhi or a Rajiv Gandhi, failing them on the political front. Considering that the likes of the 'Ayodhya demolition' and the 'Mumbai serial blasts' could only slow down, but not halt the emerging and inevitable national focus on economic issues in the post-reforms era, Manmohan Singh is a 'marked man' as far as the nation goes. 

That way, even the Indira Gandhi and the Rajiv Gandhi assassinations in their times contributed to political stability of a kind - but could not usher in economic prosperity. If anything, in their own way, the political stability of the times, just as the later-day political stability of the Narasimha Rao Government and the Vajpayee leadership, began ushering in a new era in economic policy-planning, inching away from the era of 'democratic socialism'. In a way, the 'economic reforms' was waiting to happen when it happened. The 'fiscal crisis' of 1990-91 set the nation's mood, and identified an alternative.

It should be heartening that the two major political parties in the nation, namely, the Congress and the BJP, share a common economic outline for the nation. For those who have been wondering as to how nations like the US, and even divided polities like Japan and Italy have prospered despite fractured electoral verdicts and fallen governments, the post-reforms India has provided the answer. Today, not only the Congress and the BJP but even smaller parties accept the outline for reforms, if not the details, as offered. Even among the white-collar employees, who are products and beneficiaries of the forgotten era of democratic socialism, there are not many protestors to the reforms regimen in their respective sectors. Or, so it had seemed.

Yet, for the Narasimha Rao Government and the Vajpayee dispensation, economic policy was not their electoral plank when they first won the public mandate of whatever kind. It was 'after-thought' of a kind. The political compulsions and the combinations of the time saw the reforms sail through Parliament and bureaucracy without much protest. But the voter made his choice when the very next opportunity came his way. He did not wait longer, not did he give the rulers of the day more time to weigh their work, and make their options. 

At the end of the day, politics is all about winning or losing elections. Going beyond politics, economic issues have come to be associated with the 'anti-incumbency factor' that has rocked successive Governments at the Centre and in the States. Yet, there's a need for continuity despite differences on the economic front just as there is need for unity in diversity on the political firmament. This has been achieved to a great extent, but only on paper. The homogeneity of approach to economic issues between political majors has not percolated either vertically, or horizontally. 

If 'economic continuity' became possible even in the absence of 'political stability' in other countries, in contemporary India there is still political voice and electoral choice left for the affected sections. This segment of voters has shown that they have no respect for what may sound logical to the elitist sections. The domineering electoral engagement of the Left parties in recent decades despite their declining political presence, and the emerging role of regional parties are pointers. 

Where regional parties are already a part of the political reality, they are giving space, if not place, to sub-regional identifies. Their focused agendas in turn have adopted issues that the 'unacknowledged common national agenda' has been unable to address. Where they have tried to assert their supremacy, they have failed as a Third Front at the national-level. Where they have acknowledged the natural supremacy of one or the other of the two 'national parties', they have continued in power, and have also continued to influence policy-planning. Domination by the major partner without accepting their presence as the 'Vajpayee experiment' showed, led to the 'Third Front parties' leaving the boat when its prospects of sinking became clearer - and advanced the sinking process, as well.

Tasked to maintain status quo on politics and push the nation towards the developmental trajectory, Manmohan Singh needs to identify vast segments of voters who need to be made stake-holders in nation-building, all over again. Their needs need to be addressed without upsetting the reforms agenda beyond a point. Blind loyalty or allergy to either would help neither the Government, nor the people. The Government needs to strike the right balance in policy-planning on the socio-economic front, and also take all political parties and all sections of the people with him. In this, no one is better-placed than Manmohan Singh, but then he needs to ask himself if FDI in civil aviation and insurance sectors are as urgent an issue as ending starvation-deaths in rural Andhra Pradesh - that too in the first 100 days in office.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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