Posted by: Manjeet Krpalani on July 9, 2008
The Communists finally quit the Congress party coalition in New Delhi. Not a moment too late. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, currently in Japan for the G-8 meeting, can at last tell President Bush that India will go ahead with the US-India civilian nuclear deal, the one that the Communists had blocked for over three years.
What does this mean for the ruling coalition and for India?
First, India will no longer be an isolated emerging nuclear power.
Second, the Congress party will still continue to rule its coalition in New Delhi. The party made up for the loss of the Communists in its coalition (the Congress and its allies need 272 seats in Parliament to continue ruling) by accepting the support of the Samajwadi Party, a regional player from the populous (and severely under-developed) state of Uttar Pradesh, with which it has shared mostly animosity.
Third, the Samajwadi Party, whose issues are mostly about caste and which has been variously accused of corruption among other vices, is looking more like a national party than the Congress. While the Congress dithered over the nuclear deal all these years, wasting valuable time and international patience, the Samajwadi party stated right at the outset that it was supportive of the deal which, it declared, was clearly in the national interest. With that grand geste, it was welcomed by the Congress last week as a partner. The Congress could take a leaf out of that regional book.
Lastly, there’s suddenly a new expectancy in the air in New Delhi: with the Communists gone, can real reform be far behind? In the last 24 hours, this has been debated by television talk show hosts, newspaper editorials and common folk. So much needs to be done, that’s been held off because the Communists protested everything - from meaningful agricultural reform, to land acquisition for SEZs, to foreign policy changes - except the things that really matter for India’s success like issues of corruption and governance.
However, dear reader, don’t hold your breath for change. For the Congress party has shown itself to be, within itself, more leftist than the Left. It believes that India is a poor country, and that poor Indians need handouts - like the $15 billion farm loan waiver and the even larger oil subsidy and upcoming fertilizer subsidy - not more economic and entrepreneurial freedom. Under Congress rule, it has felt eerily like the Indira Gandhi era of the 1960s and 1970s, where the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’ or ‘Remove Poverty’ was dominant in politics and policy.
India, thankfully, is well past that. Indians no longer think of themselves as poor; even the very poor aspire mightily, and think of themselves as middle class. That’s been largely thanks to education - the #1 expenditure in Indian households both rural and urban, after food, is childrens’ education. And partly, for those less poor, access to credit to buy things like washing machines and fridges and televisions that take the drudgery out of daily life.
For four long years, there has been a disconnect between the ruling Congress coalition and the people. That’s why the reign of Sonia Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, and her regent, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has proven so woefully short of the great hopes they brought with them when they won national elections in 2004. And that’s why, despite the Communists no longer being in the driver’s seat, there’s unlikely to be much new reform to look forward to in the last six months of Congress rule in New Delhi.