We Shall Overcome, or Shall We?

Suvi Dogra
Research Associate

That the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has had an especially difficult year became more evident with the government’s ambitious plans of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail and Pension and Insurance Bills getting demolished in Parliament’s winter session. To add to this, the Lokpal Bill debates ended 2011 on an unpleasant note for the government. Putting this behind, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who came under severe criticism for his stoic silence, addressed the nation on the first day of the new year and managed to present a somewhat prudent assessment of the Indian economy while not wishing to ‘…dwell on the year gone by,’ and instead ‘…focus on the challenges of the future.’ The prime minister listed out the key challenges India is now facing. These include livelihood security, economic security, energy security, ecological security and national security.

Flagging caution about the fatigue in India’s fiscal space, he put forth the need for fiscal consolidation by measures such as trimming subsidies, implementing newer reforms such as introducing the Goods and Services Tax (GST). With GST in place, the government hopes to modernise the indirect tax system, improve economic efficiency and increase total revenues. India saw its fiscal stability decline significantly in the past three years from 2.7 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2007-08 to 5.1 per cent in 2010-11.  The prime minister highlighted that this was mainly due to the government’s conscious decision to ‘allow a larger fiscal deficit in 2009-10 in order to counter the global slowdown,’ however, ‘like other countries that resorted to this strategy, we have run out of fiscal space.’ The Indian economy which grew at 9.3 per cent in 2007-08, is likely to grow by 7 per cent in 2011-12. The government therefore does realise that reforms are needed to not only counter the current slowdown but to also meet India’s ambitions of 8 per cent and beyond.

The prime minister noted the need for a ‘…second agricultural revolution to ensure sufficient growth in rural incomes.’ Further, with the urban Indian population expected to grow from 380 million at present to 600 million by 2030, a key challenge, Dr Singh said, is to be able to provide productive jobs in the non-agricultural sector to accommodate the expanding urban population. He also mentioned the need to expand urban infrastructure to deal with the expected expansion of urban population. Besides issues of energy, ecological and national security, education also found a much needed emphasis in his speech, ‘I firmly believe that educating our children, providing them with employable skills, while also ensuring their good health must be our first and primary task. There is no better investment we can make in the future.’

Having faced the ire of the Opposition and Team Anna on the subject of Lokpal, the prime minister dwelt upon the issue at length in his speech, assuring citizens that the government was committed to an effective Lokpal Bill. ‘The Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill were passed by the Lok Sabha. It is unfortunate that the Bill could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha. However, our government is committed to the enactment of an effective Lokpal Act.’  With the issue of corruption taking centre stage, Dr Singh acknowledged the need for new institutions such as the Lokpal and the Lokayuktas as integral part of the solution. He however added that, the Lokpal was only a part of the solution and that major reforms are required in the systems of government to increase transparency and minimise discretion so as to reduce the scope of misgovernance. He also highlighted initiatives such as the Bill on Citizen’s Charters (meant to empower citizens to demand services at appropriate standards from government department) and the Bill on Judicial Accountability, which the government views as ‘transformational initiatives, which will be recognised as such a few years down the line.’

The question then remains whether the Indian economy overcome the challenges as indicated by Dr Singh? As the country gears up for elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and three other states and with the Lokpal tangle still unresolved, the government is likely to be occupied by politics rather than push the economic and governance reforms as envisioned by the Prime Minster in his speech.

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Anna and the Lokpal Bill: ‘Short-Cut’ Democracy?

Sinderpal SinghSinderpal
Research Fellow, ISAS

The continuing saga over the Lokpal Bill’s purview has been front-page news in India for the past few weeks. Seemingly riding on a wave of public discontent against large scale corruption scandals involving the UPA government, Anna Hazare and his fellow NGO-wallahs have demanded far-reaching legislation in the form of a Lokpal, a body that will serve as a watchdog against institutionalised corruption at the highest level. The main bone of contention between the UPA government and the ‘Anna team’ has been about whether the Prime Minister should be included within the ambit of this Lokpal.

The UPA government’s opposition to this inclusion, and thus to Anna’s demands, is based on the simple premise that Parliament, as the elected representative of the people in a democracy, should not be held hostage to Anna and his people. Several people sympathetic to Anna’s demands have dismissed this argument as flimsy – an excuse by the UPA to evade action on the issue of institutionalised corruption.  The Anna team went even further – they conducted surveys in several localities, which they claimed demonstrated that the majority of Indians supported their version of the Lokpal bill. The UPA was quick to respond – they challenged Anna and his team to enter the electoral fray and contest elections on the basis of his Lokpal bill. As much as this might be standard political rhetoric – that steadfast adherence to the central tenets of representative democracy is probably not the main reason for the UPA’s stance – it does throw up interesting questions. Who actually ‘represents’ the people in this instance? Who can claim they have the ‘people’s mandate’ when it comes to legislation?

These questions also relate to a long-standing debate about whether there is an ‘Asian’ form of democracy and the view that ‘good governance’ and ‘liberal ‘democracy seldom go together. You either choose ‘good governance’ or ‘liberal’ democracy. This was the debate in vogue in the 1980s, with certain Asian states like Singapore extolling the virtues of a democratic model infused with  ‘Asian values’,characterised by restricted liberties and controlled political contestation. This came, seemingly, with the real goodies – ‘good governance’ which came with social order (no messy riots or strikes) allied with economic growth. Certain non-Western countries, like India, it was argued, had ‘too much’ democracy and that explained most of its ills. Democracy, in this rendition, was a means to an end and not an end in itself.  In the ‘Asian’ democracy, ‘good governance’ model, it did not matter if important decisions were made by individuals or bodies that were not popularly elected in free, competitive elections – as long as they ‘got the job done’.

Turning back to the Anna saga, those who strongly defend his attempts to pressure the government on the specific details of the Lokpal bill should think again. Institutionalised corruption is obviously a major problem in India and any attempts to address this problem should be welcomed. The way in which it is done, though, is equally, if not important. Allowing shortcuts in a democracy, where unelected individuals or institutions are given more political power than elected representatives can lead down a very dangerous and slippery slope. Subverting the democratic process, even when it is done for seemingly noble goals, can be fatal – democratic processes should not be discarded when some ends are not deemed to have been fulfilled. Beware the short-cut – you never know where you might end up.

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