The Populist Chronicles

How Mamta is making Congress look good

It is rather amusing to watch the New Delhi Establishment in uproar over railways minister Dinesh Trivedi’s forced departure from the union cabinet. Those who have cheered the squandering of thousands of crores in ‘social sector’ spending by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government are suddenly enthralled with fiscal prudence and are praising Mr. Trivedi for refusing to bow to populism and putting country first.  Well, this train long left the station and sans a massive crisis, restrained spending and prudent fiscal management are unlikely to be practiced in New Delhi in the near term.  Or for that matter in state capitals.

Nevertheless, the brouhaha over Mr. Trivedi may still have important economic and political implications. Trifling as the amount of Rs. 4000 crores may be, the unsavory episode further strengthens the narrative of a weak and dysfunctional government held hostage by its own populist inclinations and belligerent allies.  With the world economy still in a crisis mode and the ongoing policy paralysis in New Delhi, India’s growth story is in serious danger of being derailed. Despite the government’s stated confidence that India will regain the high growth trajectory, it is highly unlikely that a weakened central government would be able to push forward any meaningful reforms before the 2014 elections. Worse, there is hardly any talk of economic growth in Indian polity with almost exclusive attention to redistributnist schemes across all political parties.

The political picture is a little more murky. If India was a normal democracy, then, Dr. Manmohan Singh would have been heavily criticized for running a government over which he appears to exercise little control. Others would point out that Dr. Singh is hardly in a position to blame Mamta Banerjee for practicing populism when he has done little else over his term.  But Indian politics operates by its very own rules where weakness—as BJP discovered to its horror in the 2009 elections—can often be one’s strength. Despite its enormous economic mismanagement, in a single stroke, Mamta Bannerjee has allowed the Congress party to project it self as the only responsible national formation willing to sacrifice short term popularity to secure India’s future. With no party in a position to support the hike in railway fares, by default, the Congress party benefits especially since any voter backlash is likely to be directed against Dinesh Trivedi and the party he represents.  Congress managers and its profligate leadership must be utterly shocked to discover their new identity as guardians of India’s fiscal future. If Dr. Singh can summon the same courage which motivated him to push the Indo-US nuclear deal against strident opposition, then  Congress’ hand is only likely to be further strengthened. Admittedly, that possibility is remote—nevertheless, Congress will probably escape politically unscathed from the railway budget fiasco.

It is less clear if Mamta Banerjee will benefit from sending Dinesh Trivedi packing and holding the central government hostage over the last few months. Mrs. Banerjee clearly sees herself as a firebrand populist and nothing short of an electoral debacle is likely to make a difference to her policy agenda. She simply cannot compromise as she has fallen for the old trap: Belief in her own sainthood.  Indeed, if possible, Mamta Banerjee would happily stage weekly marches against her own government in Kolkota demanding that it roll back its ‘anti-people’ policies. Nevertheless, as the communist parties discovered in 2009, blatant arm twisting and ‘dadagiri‘ does not equal electoral performance. Already, there are reports that the Bengal electorate is beginning to be disillusioned with Mrs. Banerjee and it is possible that if she destabilizes the central government or simply makes it impossible for it to function, she may suffer electoral reverses.  Mamta Banerjee would hardly be the first revolutionary to be consumed by the same tactics which brought her success in the first place.

Even if she realizes the potential pitfalls, Mamta Banerjee simply cannot step back. Compromise is not her style and while it may have worked wonders in the opposition, she may yet discover that her no prisoners taken approach is unlikely to be as successful in government. In any case, unstable allies will ensure a turbulent future for the UPA government though it is unlikely that the government would fall.

Tailpiece: On another note, it did not take Akhilesh Yadav even a week to go back on his party’s promise of turning a new leaf. Now, all parties harbor the criminal and the corrupt and you cannot expect any party to give up power merely because it needs to accommodate a few goondas. But that’s exactly what is troubling here: There was no need  for Akhilesh Yadav to include Raja bhaiya in his cabinet. The SP government enjoys a clear majority and Raja Bhaiya is at best a local leader with limited state wide influence. Why was he rewarded then?

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