If you want a better opposition, you need a responsible government too

Apropos this NDTV discussion on the government’s decision to sharply raise petrol prices. Poor Chandan Mitra who probably thought this was an excellent opportunity to score a few political points against the Congress party was cornerned when the host Nidhi Razdan and the excitable Surjit Bhalla demanded an immediate yes or no answer: Would the BJP support an increase in diesel prices?

But before BJP was questioned, there was the usual politician bashing with both Razdan and Bhalla demanding that politicians should behave like statesmen. Well, more than NDTV hosts and for that matter this blogger, politicians reflect our will—or at least our baser instincts. Conduct a survey in the poshest New Delhi colony and one will know instantly what a miniscule minority supports the latest increase in petrol price—fiscal prudence be damned. Now, it is quite all right to wish that politicians would rise above  partisan warfare but they should hardly blamed for acting like our true representatives.

Coming to BJP: The principal charge laid against the BJP was that it was politically expdient in opposing the petrol price hike. It knew that oil companies were suffering; the fiscal deficit is increasing; and the economy is slowing—the government was left with little option but to permit this increase. What were the solutions BJP could offer? Would it support an increase in diesel prices considering how it is being diverted to run the SUVs of the rich. Of course, Mitra was caught in a bind: He could not obviously support an increase in diesel prices—no politician in India can ever support a price hike  howsoever justified—but neither could he completely oppose it considering the fiscal implications.

Hallelujah! Mission accomplished. BJP was exposed!

There are three things which are wrong with this narrative.

First, an opposition party in a democracy exists to, well,  oppose the government and draw as sharp a distinction between its policies and that of the ruling party as possible. Unless its opposition is as egregious and as counter productive as BJP’s marches against the nuclear deal, the party can hardly be blamed for not supporting the Congress party especially on policies which may be inherently unpopular. Manish Tewari is fond of reminding all and sundry that the NDA government increased the price of petroleum products 30 times. So how many times did Congress support these price increases—economically necessarily as they may have been? Why should BJP be expected to act differently? More importantly, was the Congress punished electorally for its intransigence?

Second, the mess in the petroleum sector is the result of wrong policies pursued by multiple governments over the years. Just to give one example: Shell India’s Vikram Mehta pointed out that out of the 140,000 crore under-recovery of the oil companies during 2011, petrol only accounted for 15000 crore with diesel, kerosene and LPG responsible for the rest. Yet the government has focused on only increasing petrol prices because politically it is the easiest decision to make. If the Congress party is indulging its political interests, the opposition can hardly be expected to do otherwise.

Third, as it is being belatedly acknowledged, the Indian economy is in a mess with growth slowing and fiscal deficit ballooning. Once again, this hasn’t happened overnight.  Ever since the UPA government came to power in 2004, it has created massive new entitlement schemes of dubious value. The government expenditure has increased substantially crowding out private investments and creating inflationary pressure.  The UPA government has paid little attention to the reform process arguing willy-nilly that India was destined to grow. anyway. At this rate, Indian citizens would be entitled to all and sundry but with a bankrupt government!  (Others in the Congress party simply believe that entitlements matter more than growth.)

Or take an issue which has nothing to do with the poor. The NDA government had taken some halting steps towards privatizing non-core public sector units. The UPA government completely reversed this policy declaring that even in case of  non-core PSUs, the government would ensure that its stake remains at 51% at the minimum. Result: The government recently sanctioned a 30000 crore rescue package for Air India. Wasn’t India’s fiscal situation dire then? Could not have government found a better way to spend 30000 crores than on ‘rescuing’ a dysfunctional airline? And most important, for an ostensibly aam aadami government,  what has Air India got to do with the poor?

The larger point is fairly simple: India’s current economic situation is the result of deliberate ideological posturing and poor policy making. And again it hasn’t happened overnight.

Nevertheless, it must be conceded that UPA’s economic populism has delivered political results. It comprehensively won the 2009 elections virtually decimating the BJP and while elections are won or lost for multiple reasons, the freebies delivered to the voters certainly played an important part. However, the problem with populism is that the day of accountability inevitably arrives and when it does, drastic actions are required. But here’s the thing: The Congress benefits politically from massive government spending, wins elections and is cheered by the Left-liberal intelligentsia for taking care of the poor but when it comes to paying the bills, the opposition should act ‘responsibly’ and not ‘polticize’ issues! Unless one believes that BJP and its leaders are in politics solely for altruistic reasons, it would be extremely foolish to expect the BJP to do so.

In fact, the sheer chutzpah is breathtaking!

The role of the opposition in a democracy is not to rescue the government from precarious situations. It is to take advantage of the government’s poor performance and argue to the voters that it can do better. This is how accountability in a democracy is fixed.

Politicians react to incentives. The Indian voter has rewarded populism and sloganeering over fiscal prudence and long-term growth. How can politicians be blamed for acting in a manner which their voters prefer? Indeed, as Sushant Singh had pointed out in this excellent commentary in Pragati: ‘[The] most damaging legacy of the Congress-led UPA government [is] moving the complete political ideology in India towards the Left.’ Populism is hard to fight even in advanced countries; in a poor country like India with millions struggling for their daily existence, it is even more challenging.

BJP fails this test. But its failure is hardly its own but an indictment of the Indian political system and its biggest stakeholder: the Indian voter

P.S  Retributions has been extremely critical of the BJP in the past. It will continue to do so. Acknowledging political realities does not mean acquiescence.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.