Thursday, June 5, 2008

GOVERNANCE AND THE POLITICS OF PETROL PRICES

In an earlier post about the defeat of the Congress party in Karnataka, I had written about how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh(MMS) had been made almost into a small adult MMS clip which is to be viewed only in private. That is what the party had done to him, getting him to make only one election speech to a select few in an auditorium. For the first time since Independence, the man who holds the country’s reigns was kept away from personally interacting directly with the people he is leading and whose votes put politicians in power.

The only logical explanation for that humiliation, nothing less, of the Prime Minister is that the entrenched power centres of the Congress party did not want to take the risk of even miniscule credit being appropriated by the PM or his government in the event of the party winning the elections. That is sole prerogative of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Like everyone else, the PM’s role was limited to taking on part of the blame for failure had the Congress lost, which it did. Predictably, the Manmohan Singh led government was castigated for being a paralysed one, with numerous statistics conveniently put forth to support the argument and lay the blame squarely on the government alone for its poor performance. There was, naturally, no mention whatsoever of the political machinations of, and pressures put by, the Congress party which were responsible in great measure for the helplessness that has gripped the UPA government.

Contrast this to the flawed National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Farm Loan Waiver Scheme, a hundred thousand crore rupee drain on the country’s economy. Both Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Chidambaram were reportedly opposed to these schemes. But, they were summarily overruled because a few henchmen believed that these schemes would fetch additional votes, and votes to them override commonsense completely. Thereafter, no effort was spared by the party to ensure that the credit for these schemes was given solely to Rahul Gandhi in an effort to build up his image as the only worthwhile candidate for the Prime Minister’s job. The government was painstakingly painted as no more than an implementer of the policies of the real power behind the proverbial throne.

Then, as the price of crude oil kept scaling new heights, the paralysis in the government remained total. From $30 a barrel, crude has shot up to $130 during the tenure of the UPA government. The PM had been making noises about raising the street price of petro products, but was not able to do much because 10 Janpath did not want to take any political risk. So, the situation was allowed to drift interminably till June 04, 2008 when, in one go, the price of petrol was raised by a whopping Rs 5 and diesel by Rs 3 per litre, the highest jump ever.

The reaction of various political parties to this raise is as sick and predictable as ever. BJP, the party fancying its chances of leading the next government in the Centre, reacted in a manner that will shame even the most irresponsible of politicians anywhere in the world. The party called the increase, believe it, “economic terrorism”. Why? Because it can greedily see the raise only in terms of votes that it can get out of this step which is bound to be unpopular. Ask the party specifically what it would have done had it been in power, and you will get evasive, dishonest answers.

The BJP may have nonchalantly discarded its sense of responsibility on the altar of votes. The communists, on the other hand, are playing their old gramophone record which plays only one tune: tax the rich more, bleed them to death if you have to, and reduce taxes on the poor, to ‘protect’ their interest. This failed record has nowhere yielded the desired results and the resultant economic stagnation has led to the demise of communism all over the world. But our communists, harsh and intolerant even in speech, are stuck to His Master’s Voice.

At the same time, communists are practical enough to keep taxes on petro products in states ruled by them at a very high level. After the recent hike, they have effected marginal reductions. But that action has most probably been taken to justify doing the only thing they are professionally capable of doing: bringing all economic activity to a halt, no matter that those who suffer the most by such disruptions are the very poor whose voice they claim to be. A week long bandh has already been announced by them. Take that for a mature 21st century response by a national party.

Notwithstanding all the expected fire and fury by opposition parties in the wake of the hike in prices of petrol and diesel, the icing on the cake is the manner in which the Congress party has craftily chosen to manage the fallout and do some damage control. The decision to raise the prices was taken after long consultations with, and approval of, Sonia Gandhi, who finally gave in because the situation had become too grave to be brushed under the carpet any longer. But, this is not a decision that will endear her to the people. On the contrary, it may prove electorally disastrous. So, how does the party go about de-linking the Family from the decision?

The party has a convenient and amenable fall guy willing to take the flak for the faults others without a whimper. After the announcement of the hike, the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, was taken out of the closet and made to appear on national television to justify to the nation why prices had to be increased so steeply. He was made to take the responsibility on himself for this step. Of course, he was not allowed tell the nation that had he had his way, the whole issue would have been incrementally addressed much earlier or that he cannot cut down on taxes any further than he has because he needs that money to finance ill conceived schemes pushed down his throat for votes that are neither coming nor will come in future.

The hopelessly splintered mandates that our model of multi part democracy has been throwing up for decades now has altered the basic behaviour of responsible national parties. The greed for, and paranoia of, a few additional or less votes which can make or mar political fortunes or place abnormally excessive power in the hands of tiny political outfits, have become the determinators of political decision making and response.

As the highly belated hike in petrol prices and the reactions to it have shown once again, the real purpose of all political activity, to provide good, responsible governance, has been lost sight of by all political parties. Petty politics has become an end in itself.

This post was also published by reuters.com
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