Deadly virus of Treasury Benches

Deadly virus of Treasury Benches

By Dhiraj Nayyar | 1 August, 2015
The Opposition is a repository of principle and great ideas. They should run the Government.

In India, like in most democracies, the people elect the party/coalition they believe has the best ideas/plans to run the government; the party/coalition with unsuitable ideas/plans is consigned to the Opposition. What is peculiar to India is the apparent reality that once a party/coalition enters government, it seems to quickly abandon its most attractive ideas in favour of the status quo or the worst practices of the party just booted out, while the party/coalition that is sent to occupy the opposition benches quickly becomes the repository of all things sensible.

The Congress is adopting senseless, destructive tactics by stalling Parliament. But it is saying the right things on many issues. It is hardly unreasonable for the Congress to demand the resignation of a senior minister on the grounds of impropriety. On the contentious issue of government appointments, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is right in calling out mediocrity. On the more complex subject of the Goods and Services Tax, the Congress' insistence on keeping the overall tax rate low and its demand to abolish the proposed additional 1% cess on the movement between goods is terrific economics — the party's demands on the issue could save India from a moth-eaten and ineffective GST.

If only the Congress had adopted all these principles with alacrity when in government. Where was the ministerial accountability then? What about all the mediocrity Congress promoted, not least in elevating an unfit Rahul Gandhi to lead their 2014 campaign? And where was all the wisdom on GST? Stored away for the stint in Opposition?

But let's not single out the Congress. When in Opposition, the BJP used the same senseless, cynical tactics of stalling Parliament repeatedly, but in terms of ideas and principles, particularly once Narendra Modi rose to lead, the party was excellent. The BJP nailed the Congress on ministerial follies. It took a tough stand on certain controversial appointments — remember how as Leader of Opposition, Sushma Swaraj had objected to the appointment of P.J. Thomas as Chief Vigilance Commissioner, a stand that was vindicated by the Supreme Court. The party seemed the repository of good economics — Modi spoke of minimum government, of the fact that government had no business to be in business and of the need to remove obstacles to doing business in India.

The virus of the Treasury Benches laid to rest all those principles and ideas in rapid time. Ministerial misdemeanours are defended. Controversial and mediocre appointments are the norm. There is no paradigm shift in economic policies — India's big government is intact, its public sector companies are "thriving" (while draining taxpayers' money) and it's still as difficult to do business as ever.

What explains this bizarre and ironical situation? One obvious explanation is that the government doesn't merely consist of the party in power. There is a mammoth bureaucracy that actually runs the day to day affairs of the state and there is absolute continuity in babudom even as political masters change. India's bureaucrats are the ultimate status quoists, resistant to change.

A different explanation hinges on the political economy of change in India. Sensible policies and high principles disturb vested interests – inside the ruling party/coalition and outside it. When in government, there is a price to pay for taking on vested interests; in Opposition the cost is minimal.

And if you are a cynic, you could reasonably believe that the real objective of parties/coalitions is entirely self-serving — to capture power and enjoy the trappings and patronage of office — and not to implement the right policies and principles. All it requires is a little pretence while in Opposition.

Perhaps then, India should let the Opposition run the government. We may see some real change and progress.

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