It is time for the father of economic reform to initiate political reform. Priority Number 1: Dr Manmohan Singh should abandon the oath of secrecy which Cabinet ministers take, very solemnly indeed, when being anointed to the highest level of government. Step 2: a ban on mobile phones during Cabinet meetings. Which of the two is more difficult? The first, since it is easier to amend the Constitution of India than change the ideological commitment of politicians to their self-image. Democracy has its demands.
The present Union Cabinet has made a total mockery of its obligation towards official secrecy. Some ministers do not even wait for the meeting to end before they begin to regale friends and journalists with gossipy details of what transpired; they sms. You have to be first off the block if you want to try and shape public opinion with your version of the story. In the old days, a leak was considered serious enough to constitute a scandal. The Cabinet no longer leaks; it gushes forth in monsoon torrents. If the Prime Minister is upset he has no opportunity to show it. Discipline is not a clause on the UPA’s minimum or maximum programme.
There was word-by-word commentary, embellished with intricate details of what happened when, and who said what, during the Cabinet meeting that pushed through the decision to permit 51% foreign equity in multi-brand retail chains. We know precisely how Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee snubbed his Bengal ally Dinesh Trivedi; how Trivedi stormed out and then stormed back after Kamal Nath’s persuasive intervention. Jairam Ramesh’s comment that the decision would cost Congress a few seats in Uttar Pradesh has been so accurately reported he might as well have issued a press release. Sharad Pawar’s dismissive retort, that the Congress wasn’t in good shape there in any case, got equal play in diary columns. A serious dialectical debate has ensued on whether Congress merely informed its allies, conversed with them or consulted them on FDI. It is all terribly exciting. For media, that is
Jairam Ramesh’s comment that the decision would cost Congress a few seats in Uttar Pradesh has been so accurately reported he might as well have issued a press release.
Reform Number 3 is obvious. Parliament should be converted into a virtual Parliament. There should be no need for an MP to actually go the House; he or she can sit at home and participate through a networked screen-and-sound system. If private sector employees can turn their home into an office, thanks to the audio-visual net, why not Parliament? The savings on air tickets and housing would be enormous as MPs would not have to fly into Delhi. Collective behaviour would be instantly eliminated, thereby ending that common rush to the well which forces the Speaker to adjourn proceedings. We might even have a full session without disruption, and while that would be terrible for television, it might be good for legislation and debate. Some states have tried surreptitious reform by curtailing the length of sessions to an absolute minimum. The Delhi Assembly met recently for just two days. A virtual Parliament would not need such unsavoury tactics. However, there should never be any restrictions on any MP attempting to visit Parliament for a cheap meal in the canteen. This is a fundamental right of MPs, and a cornerstone of Indian democracy. [The cornerstone of British democracy is the pub in Parliament, which is why its debates are more spirited.]
Dropcap OnFourth Reform: Allies should be denied, by law, any freedom of thought or expression once they had ensured that a new government had the requisite majority. This would remove the principal source of tension in coalitions. This is a vital reform, given the fact that we are going to have partnerships in power for at least the next decade. After its impressive 200-plus seats in 2009, Congress began to hallucinate about single-party rule, but even Congress leaders on a high no longer entertain such illusions. The BJP doesn’t even think about it. The message from any Prime Minister to allies would be simple: Put up, or shut up.
Fifth [and last] Reform: Dr Singh must permit 51% foreign direct investment in Parliament. This would immediately bring transparency and order into the Indian body politic. The purchase of Lok Sabha shares would be restricted to democracies, thereby removing any threat from China. If the Americans bought majority control of the Lok Sabha we could switch at once to a Presidential form of government,
turn large parts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan into respectable office space, and contain all the political drama necessary to sustain a proper media to primaries. If the British took 51% of the shares, instead, they could start three pubs in Central Hall, which would certainly improve the mood of members. If the French took charge, they could ensure fast delivery of their Rafale fighter jets to the Indian Air Force. The only danger in this reform is that Rome or Athens might take control, turning India into Greece or Italy, but fortunately they no longer have the money.