Unholy coalitions and bad governance: India faces a cruel double whammy

The culture of political convenience and opportunistic functioning at the highest levels is dangerous for the country’s security. If only all the major political parties eschew narcissistic and vindictive politics, and resolve to sincerely act together, the national interest can be safeguarded

Corruption has taken time to grow in India. It has graduated from a slow pace, covert and cautious activity in the Nehru era to a fast, audacious and daring occupation of politicians and bureaucrats today, as can be seen from the size and frequency of scams. Party funds of all political parties started swallowing cash 'donations' from public and corporate houses which encouraged generation of black money and patronised the affluent donors. Numerous inquiries and lingering court cases have gone on for decades, tiring the witnesses and the public to such an extent that the delays virtually turn out protective for the accused—while their crimes gradually fade away into oblivion. As if by the legal processes so designed, no political party or senior political leader has yet been convicted and finally punished (exhausting all appellate levels) which could be an example to deter others.

The sluggish pace of court cases and moderated enquiries gave comfort and much-needed security to the culprits who have insidiously formed their pressure groups within the political parties. Progressively, party ideologies became out-dated, giving way to an era of politics of mutual comfort and gain. Small wonder that we find the tone and tenor of party spokespersons quickly shifting from their pre-poll accusatory stance against their declared foes, to an immediate friendly mode, keeping in tune with the post-poll trends emerging from the counting.

The anti-defection law has curbed retail horse-trading to an extent but in recent times we have seen political parties, which fought elections as avowed enemies coming together for forming an alliance with no qualms about their pre-election espousal of promises in their manifestoes. Governments are formed on the basis of shared interests of parties, which in today's context are virtual family domains of dynastic lords who call the shorts. Shamefully, it is a sad chapter in the history of the world's largest democracy that weak governments have openly traded parties and groups to win a vote of confidence in Parliament.

First, the Narasimha Rao government was saved with support bought from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. Again, in July 2008, when the Left Front withdrew their support from the UPA-1 over the Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Treaty and the Manmohan Singh government, reduced to a minority, was confronted with a confidence motion—and the stench of political corruption rose again. Wads of currency notes, allegedly paid to MPs to buy their vote to save the sinking Manmohan Singh government, were waved and the drama of active horse-trading was caught in a sting operation. While the 'cash-for-votes' is still being 'investigated', the public is largely convinced about the existence of murk and muck in our political actions at the top.

The culture of political convenience and opportunistic functioning at the highest levels is dangerous for the country's security. On critical national issues like corruption, security, good governance, healthcare and poverty eradication, it would be great if the major political parties eschew narcissistic and vindictive politics, resolving to sincerely act together, at least to safeguard the vital national interests. Such an approach can perhaps help in restoring some semblance of political integrity at the national scene and bring in systemic change in the decaying state organs and callous departments. Some of the aspects that need immediate focus are:

1.    Political Blackmail: Everyone knows how confidence motions have been won through dubious machinations between parties and individual MPs and MLAs. Modern-day Chanakyas have devised ways and means to bend and twist democracy through their party or alliance. As we saw in the questionable confidence vote for the Manmohan Singh government, Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party jumped in straight from the Opposition with its 22 MPs to save the government, despite his vociferously-voiced divergence with the policies of the ruling combine. It is also fresh in public memory how ruling coalitions are often held to ransom by tiny parties and even Independent MPs/MLAs who find and create opportunities to coerce and blackmail the ruling alliance, primarily to achieve their own narrow aims. The arrogance and audacity of the erstwhile DMK ministers mounted so high that they saw nothing odd in publicly admitting that they received their directions from Karunanidhi and not from Manmohan Singh! How are such coalitions different from gangs of criminals looting and sharing the booty? Thanks to our coalition politics, Madhu Koda, an independent MLA, went on to become Chief Minister of Jharkhand. Though now in jail for having amassed booty of over Rs4,000 crore through the mining mafia, he is now an MP in the Lok Sabha. His ambitions and possibilities in present-day Indian politics are not hard to speculate.

2.    Emergence of Dangerous Trends of Populism: In a weird move to placate particular segments in the society at the cost of higher national interests, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly has passed a resolution to save lives of three convicts sentenced to death for assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. They have exercised and exhausted all their legal rights, appeals and mercy petitions, which have been duly heard and finally rejected by the Supreme Court and the President of India. Now, inspired by this populist move of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, there is a similar resolution mooted in the J&K Assembly to save Afzal Guru, convicted and sentenced to death for the attack on India's Parliament. These moves to save the worst of the criminals and terrorists are also echoing in Punjab and, if allowed to prevail, will turn the worst of the criminals into heroes to inspire their ilk to tread the same path with greater assurance. With the advent of such politics, do we need Pakistan or China to destroy India? The enemy within is more potent, cunning and on its way to invincibility as well! What is mindboggling is that it is the victim-the unsuspecting gullible masses-who, in the name of care and welfare, are being used by the perpetrators to intrinsically destroy themselves. This sinister trend of populism too is being pedalled hard in the name of Democracy!  

3.    Systemic Degeneration: Corruption has had a cascading effect on all organs of State resulting in a systemic degeneration of institutions and departments. If not based on rule of law, democracy gradually shrinks into a self-serving oligarchy, which in turn converts resources and power of the State to instruments serving vested interests of the ruling group. Look how the State is being emasculated by this approach. The CBI, the so-called autonomous investigative agency is, as everyone knows, not so autonomous. Like hounds in sheath, the CBI sleuths can be set on trails or shooed away depending upon the convenience of the government (DoPT). People have frequently seen how quickly the CBI sleuths also adapt to the changed equations between the ruling coalition and their erstwhile targets. In most cases their investigations are inconclusive and kept alive or in suspended animation for need-based subsequent revival. A pattern of CBI behaviour has been established and it is becoming simpler now to predict their course and object of investigations. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has not done enough to curb corruption at the Centre. Appointment of tainted officers to head such an organisation further eroded its credibility. Institutions that should be people-oriented are top-oriented, serving personal interests of a chosen few at the cost of those who wait and suffer. What is even more worrisome is that the politico-bureaucratic nexus has not shied away from destroying the cohesion among India's Armed Forces. Recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee emphasised on the need to have a single point military advice system to help and advise the government on matters involving national defence and security. This, the Committee reiterated, necessitated early institutionalisation of 'Chief of Defence Staff' as a fountainhead of integrated and cohesive military vision as is working in countries like France, the UK and Australia, among others.  The nexus, however, has not only slept over these vital recommendations for over a decade now, but has also pushed down the military from their entitled position in the National Warrant of Precedence. Take away the sheen from professions like the military and you will have destroyed their morale and pride so completely that they will blunt their fighting edge.  

And see how it manifests—we have juniors going berserk killing themselves or their colleagues in the field; and generals getting increasingly involved in cases of corruption.

It is pathetic that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the most qualified among the world's prime ministers, has expressed his inability to control terrorism, inflation and corruption 'because of compulsions of a coalition government'. Is that how we had expected India's Prime Minister to lead India? A government that cannot find answers to questions as basic as these in the 21st Century has no moral right to hang on to power:

  •  Public safety and security is the very basic responsibility of the State. Why then have the police withdrawn from peoples' security leaving them to fend for themselves, by hiring private security guards while the police protect only politicians and their officers?
     
  •  Every vehicle owner pays advance road tax in lump-sum. Why can't we have all roads as good as the privately-constructed and managed Expressways?  
     
  •  Every citizen has a right to pure drinking water. Why is contaminated water, unfit for human consumption, supplied through water supply lines to homes?
     
  • Why are residents living in government-approved colonies not getting uninterrupted power supply? Why should they pay for back-up power generation from privately-run generators and inverters?
     
  •  Why are government hospitals, schools and institutions not performing with the same efficiency as the private ones, despite being well-equipped and profusely funded by public money?
  •  Why should students be required to seek 'coaching' from hoards of coaching shops by paying hefty sums to prepare for IITs, etc? Why don't schools impart quality education that should enable students to avail of all career opportunities?

India is passing through a curious phase faced with a mix of challenges and opportunities. There is matching potential available too. We can transform it to a global power if only we can overcome the coalition blackmailing and self-serving politicking within the government. The tendency of ministers treating their ministries and departments as their fiefdoms must be curbed and accountability introduced to infuse positive energy in the callous administration.

(The writer is a military veteran who commanded an Infantry battalion with many successes in counter-terrorist operations. He was also actively involved in numerous high-risk operations as second in command of the elite 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard (NSG.) He conducts leadership training and is the author of two bestsellers on leadership development that have also been translated into foreign languages).

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