National vision as a casualty

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Nov 24 2007, 03:48am hrs
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised some pertinent and timely questions recently while addressing the International Conference on Federalism. These related to federalism and other concerns in different types of governance systems: single-party as opposed to multi-party, a national system as against a multi-party model featuring those with national as well as sub-national reach. He commented, Sometimes, the resolution of problems acquires an excessively political hue, and narrow political considerations, based on regional or sectional loyalties and ideologies, can distort the national vision and sense of wider collective purpose.

India has been an unfortunate experimental ground of the multi-party model of motley coalitions. The socio-economic development forgone with this type of democratic governance system could easily be about half the current rate of growth on all important indicators. Continual detractions, stalling and political posturing have yielded a sense of despair. The political alliances that have been cobbled together with unseemly haste over the past decade or so have meant that sectional and provincial interests have gained an upper-hand over national interests. Regional/provincial parties with narrow goals have been catapulted to the governance of important sectors of the country for which they neither have the vision nor competence. In this kind of multi-party model, ministries and sectors are perceived by such regional parties as fiefdoms on a short-term lease. Even tiny parties have gotten away with ridiculous demands aimed at meeting their narrow interests. Doubtless, Centre-state relations, national aspirations and a sense of collective purpose have been casualties.

Notably, most parties have become ultra-conscious of vote banks based on identity markers such as caste. But unlike corporates that will not go beyond a point to gain share in a narrow market segment, political parties seem to have little understanding of diminishing returns. More and more parties devote disproportionate time, attention and resources to narrow bands of the electorate. In the end, such vote-banks get fragmented, and new voters begin to see the old tricks as an affront to their intelligence. Hopefully, newer electoral coagulations will appear soon that distinguish national issues from the narrow and segmental.

Understandably, coalitions are spurred by the aspiration to form a government at any cost to ensure that another major national partywhether truly an ideological opponent or notis kept out of power. In the process, all and sundry will want to gang-up to provide the necessary numbers, cutting across past differences and ideological stances. Thus, bitter enemies for decades become partners in governance; unreliable parties that cross over become strange bedfellows. Are these alliances

Though the term has been indiscriminately used for short-term cohabitations of convenience, in its true sense, an alliance requires high levels of complementarities, information sharing and a sense of common purpose that benefits all. It does not cause entropy or loss of development, but delivers synergetic gains. An alliance distinguishes itself from a gang up through a set of common national-level objectives, a long-term view, and the leveraging of mutual capabilities and resources to provide benefits to the public at large even as it serves the interests of the parties concerned.

A study of election manifestos, vision documents and common programmes of leading political parties at the national level indicates that they have much in commonbut they will want to highlight, amplify, deride each other on issues based on marginal and notional differences. They have shown capabilities of tolerance, understanding and patience, deferring agendas on which there is no consensusyet, they would rather pursue competitive politics than collaborate with one another. They refuse to entertain even dreams of a long-term strategic alliance in governing the country.

There may still be hope that the major national parties will reinvent themselves to form lasting and sustainable alliances rather than cobbled-up coalitions of convenience. To paraphrase James Callaghan, a coalition is like a muleit has no pride of ancestry and no hope of posterity. Are we destined to live with a mule