...................Press any key to start
..................T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
......................August 28, 2004
'Press any key to start. Where's the anykey?' These immortal lines are those of Homer Simpson, father of the famous Bart. They capture the United Progressive Alliance government's quandary perfectly.
If it wants to demonstrate that it knows how to govern, it has a dozen issues to choose from. But such is its confusion that it sits paralysed, asking "where is the anykey?"
Even its own supporters therefore view the central government with contempt. They are busy defying it in pursuit of their own local objectives. In local muscle, they realise, lies security and power.
Thus, in Punjab, Amarinder Singh does his little turn with the Sutlej canal, refusing to give water to Haryana, as if Punjab has full-fledged sovereignty. Karnataka has for long done this in respect of the Cauvery and releasing its waters to Tamil Nadu.
In Maharashtra, Sushil Shinde announces job reservations in the private sector. In Andhra, YSR Reddy announces free power for the farmers. In Manipur, Ibobi Singh adopts a posture designed to please Sonia Gandhi, even if it means going against the central government's policy.
All these states are ruled by the Congress. Whence, one may well ask: if the Congress governments don't care for the central government, why should the non-Congress ones? The answer is they don't.
But with the exception of the SP government in UP, which, carrying on as if an Act of Parliament doesn't matter, has reclaimed Haridwar as its own from Uttaranchal, the rest have behaved themselves so far.
But don't be misled by this reticence. It is only a matter of time before they start their own little games. The fat will truly be in the fire then because some of these state governments are ruled by parties that are part of the UPA government. They cannot be touched.
Since the others are not, the central government will have to decide the basis on which to deal with them. Given the record of central governments, differential treatment can be taken for granted. Some will be 356'd.
That is probably why the non-UPA governments are not trying their luck just yet. But they will start soon enough when the central government's impotence becomes even more apparent.
Defiance from the states, arising from the State list of the Constitution and mistaking it for sovereignty, is the biggest long-term problem that threatens the unity of the country. But there are several short-term ones as well.
Thus, there is the paralysis of this government. It conveys the consistent impression of being clueless, weak, and frozen. Not surprisingly, in the 100 days that it has been in power, it has not come out with a single policy that can be implemented quickly.
It is all very well to get positive things written in the Press on the basis of the good intentions contained in the Common Minimum Programme. But how long can you go on about how nice the Prime Minister is, how hard he works, how his heart is in the right place, without someone asking if he himself is in the right place?
Apart from the Budget, which has given some tiny lollipops to the lower middle class, can anyone point to a single initiative that can get the country out of the current logjam?
No labour reforms and divestment because the Left will not allow them. No agricultural reforms because the chief ministers will not allow them. No VAT for the same reason. No FDI because the case for it is not proven. Infrastructure? Let us set up a monitoring committee that the Prime Minister will chair. You need the Prime Minister to perform such a municipal role? What's happened to the others who are feeding at the trough?
The list of things not done, not being done, and no hope of ever being done, is endless. For every proposed reform, there is a coalition "compulsion" that leads to inaction. We may as well have the NDA back in power.
This is not the only problem. In many respects, the government is behaving like an NGO -- too many voices, too many bleeding-heart opinions, a disregard for facts, a desire to up the ante all the time and, in general, carry on as if it is only debating points that matter.
Is this governance? Is this why governments are elected, so that they can sit there doing absolutely nothing, looking helpless?
Take the fuss over the Budget amendments memorandum that the Opposition wanted to present. The Prime Minister was absolutely right in telling them to say whatever they had to say in Parliament. That's why the thing exists, after all.
But reports have also appeared about how unhappy he is with the Opposition's conduct generally. These reports serve only one purpose: they make the Prime Minister like an opening batsman complaining about fast bowlers.
Even Mr Chidambaram seems to have decided that, in the absence of a decisive and strong boss, it is best to just paddle about taking refuge behind the excuse of "political compulsions". He has also learnt a new trick: wait for the next one, he says, before I perform my miracles.
But he is already in trouble over his revenue projections. He should ponder over why the people so willingly hand over Rs 50,000 crore (Rs 500 billion) to Ratan Tata, but not to him.
The paradox is that no one really thinks that the government is vulnerable to being brought down by the coalition partners, because the alternative is worse. This means that the prime minister has much greater room for manoeuvre than he is allowing himself.
This was clearly demonstrated when the issue of the interest rate on the provident fund came up. He took on the Left and it was the Left that backed off. So why is he not doing this on other issues?
The reason is that, as with the state governments, his greatest problem lies within his own party, most particularly in 10 Janpath. Congressmen sound exactly as the BJP fellows did when Mr Vajpayee was at his weakest.
Many in the BJP, including notably one of his ministerial colleagues, used to refer to Mr Vajpayee as "woh buddha". Dr Singh can draw comfort from the fact that his partymen are not quite as rude. But, oh boy, are they patronising.
The time has come for Dr Singh to get tough, mainly with his own party.