Ive got the veto power

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Sep 24 2013, 17:22pm hrs
At our usual gossip sessions in Mumbai over coffee earlier last week with a particularly cerebral star of corporate India (who had better go unnamed for his own good), the talk shifted to the current obsession in his universe: our governance paralysis. Where government has no leader whose writ runs, and where everybody seems to have the power to veto and block anything. Our country, he said, had become like Poland of the 16th to 18th century.

Apparently, in that period, Poland had a system whereby each member of its parliament had a veto. So, any member of parliament could block any decision. Everything, as a result, came to a standstill. I did a quick search later on the internet and found references and explanations for this phenomenon of liberum veto (Latin for free veto), which was prevalent in that period in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Some detail needs mentioning. In the Sejm (as that parliament was called), any member could shout Nie Pozwalam (Polish for I do not permit) to not just block a legislation from being passed, but also to bring about an immediate adjournment and repeal any laws already passed.

There must have been some oomph in this for it to survive almost two centuries. India has taken its time getting there. But now that we have done so, we are out Pole-ing the Poles. We have seen all and sundry even four Andhra Pradesh MPs from the TDP on the Telangana issue block our Parliament. Two AGP MPs blocked a vital constitutional amendment to sanctify a strategic agreement with Bangladesh by snatching the draft from the hands of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, and so on. The virus has proliferated beyond our Parliament. It afflicts the entire cabinet, our regulators and the bureaucracy. So we now have the entire establishment staffed by omnipotent no-men. Whether admirable or abominable depends on which side of that particular debate you are on.

The Polish parallel is excitingly apt. Lets take a few key examples. The most striking, of course, is our ministry of commerce and industry (or rather, the Department of Industrial Promotion and Policy, DIPP). The veto there has trickled down to the joint secretary level. One of them can routinely produce truly exotic objections to any new reform, particularly if it involves a three-letter abomination called FDI. From FDI in retail to the relaxation of foreign investment in aviation, and now to what is described as brownfield pharma, the ministrys mid-level bureaucracy has done everything possible to block investment while its remit is to promote it.

And it isnt the only one. At every meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure (CCI), an innovation created to save the economy from this strangulating maze of vetoes, one case after another pops up with similar issues. Environment, the usual suspect, cleared a major power plant in May 2012, but hasnt as yet issued a simple letter to the entrepreneur saying so. The coal ministry, which complains most of all that everybody else, from environment, railways and power to tribal affairs, is blocking its plans, is a quiet champion by itself in slaying others projects. Railways are the worst. Ask anybody, including its niftier offspring, the Delhi Metro, what an impossible challenge it is to merely get right of way to build a flyover across a rail line.

This Ive got the veto power madness bedevils more than the economy and infrastructure. Take human resources development. Almost all reform and modernisation has come to a standstill ever since arguably its weakest minister in 15 years took over. Decisions already taken, even Indian private universities already sanctioned, are not moving, because the minister has given the Left a veto. Why so, when the Left has just 38 MPs in a parliament with an existing strength of 787 Because, through propaganda and persuasion, it dominates the parliamentary committee on HRD and it says no to all reforms. Of course, this is by no means binding on the government. But the minister is too pusillanimous to overrule it. That utterly unconstitutional veto becomes a lazy, do-nothing governments most convenient excuse.

When nobody at the top has the spine to kick an obstructionist in the butt, this veto power travels downwards. In the capital, for example, the new airport was contracted out through open, public bids that involved the construction of a certain number of hotels of a given height. It is only after the hotels were built that somebody in Delhi Police woke up to the opportunity that was being lost. So security threat became their Nie Pozwalam! Construction was stopped, the airport owners (which includes the sarkari Airports Authority of India) and their lender banks were all left stranded for months. Now they are spending enormous amounts of money on blocking all windows with bulletproof glass and raising the modern equivalent of a Great Wall of China, or at least the Tihar fencing, around the aerocity (besides some tributes here and there), so nobody can take a potshot at the planes on the runway. Nobody is to ask how somebody would smuggle in long-range guns through hotel security. Of course, nobody is also to ask why there are no such concerns at the Mumbai airport, where slums extend deep into the perimeter and where one could happily park oneself with a well-sited bazooka or a heavy machine gun.

These arbitrary, unconstitutional and obstructionist veto powers go unchallenged because of weak governance, where every decision or idea has to pass the test of the last mans NOC (no objection certificate). This creates unchecked and monetisable power centres. One has to be reckless to say this, but since somebody has to be thick-skinned enough to say so, what the hell. Whenever you see a story about the navy objecting to another tall building in Mumbai on security grounds after its been built the word that comes to your mind is ATM. If the only threat facing our navys assets in its largest safe harbour is spies hanging out of the windows and balconies of civilian buildings, it should start by shutting down the Taj in Colaba. And if that would save this aspiring blue water navy the awful embarrassment of losing genuine capital assets in peacetime the latest, submarine INS Sindhurakshak, in the same harbour, in fact we can shift all the tall buildings out of south Mumbai, in the national interest. The truth is, the navy has a veto on construction in Indias most expensive island.

And its done nothing for the navys reputation and preparedness. When one skyscraper is allowed to rise and the other, next to it, is locked up, all that comes to your mind is Adarsh. There is no starker example of a monetisable veto than that scandalous building, the likes of which run into scores in Mumbai.

India as 17th century Poland may sound like a quaint idea, but people are now getting fed up. In fact, this indecision and uncertainty is feeding the clamour for a more decisive leadership, aka Narendra Modi. It is the UPAs most grievous, self-inflicted wound, and an election-season gift to the BJP. The pity is, two generations of Indians will pay for it, in more ways than one.

sg@expressindia.com