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An inauspicious beginning for Sonia
May 17, 2004
Does Sonia Gandhi have a mandate to rule? With just over 140 Congress Members of Parliament -- about the same as P V Narasimha Rao managed in 1996 and Sitaram Kesri in 1998 -- it is hard to agree. Even with all her pre-poll allies adding their weight, Sonia Gandhi has no more than 216 members in a Lok Sabha with a strength of 543. But if she does not have a mandate, Sonia Gandhi certainly commands the numbers.
Those numbers flow from the fact that the Left Front succeeded in putting up its best performance ever, winning over 60 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Communists had stated, well before a single vote was counted, that Sonia Gandhi would be their candidate for prime ministership. That is the Congress president's strength because those 63 legislators put her slightly over the halfway mark of 272 in the Lok Sabha. It means that she does not need to beg any favours from the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. (And it also lessens her dependence on 'allies' such as Sharad Pawar!)
Ironically, the very discipline and commitment that makes the Left Front such a formidable addition to Sonia Gandhi's strength may also prove to be her major weakness. The Left Front remains unconvinced about the direction and scale of economic reforms. India had a foretaste of what that means last week when Sitaram Yechury of the CPI-M and the CPI's A B Bardhan publicly expressed their distaste for the whole process of divestment. The result was bloodletting on Dalal Street, wiping out thousands of crores from the stock markets as foreign investors fled.
There is no point blaming foreigners. They had come into the market because India was offering huge returns on their investment, 10 percent or more annually. Fast-paced economic reform was the reason for the booming markets, and divestment was a principal reason. When the Left Front chose to cast a doubt on the viability of the process, foreign investors packed up and left.
This was only the beginning. The Left Front -- and some other allies such as Laloo Prasad Yadav -- are disinclined to take other hard economic decisions. An exit policy for labour in all those overstaffed public enterprises? Raising prices for petroleum products to keep pace with rising imports? Forget about it!
Laloo Prasad Yadav for one has already declared that his party wants to lower prices on diesel, kerosene, and petrol rather than raise them. And in Hyderabad the new chief minister, Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, started his reign by reversing N Chandrababu Naidu's policies and waiving power tariff arrears for farmers. It is quite simple: the money a government spends on subsidies is money that it cannot spend on developmental activities.
Does the new administration propose to print more money so that it will have enough both to spend on subsidies and development? Then, we may be back to the heyday of inflation. How does the Sonia Gandhi ministry propose to avoid this trap? A really good monsoon will go some way to avoiding trouble, but I still foresee trouble ahead.
I am not the only one. In private conversations, the leaders of the DMK admit that they are apprehensive about the intentions of some of their partners. It is why Karunanidhi has carefully stated that his party will not join the Sonia Gandhi ministry, but just offer support from outside. The DMK is preparing for the assembly polls in Tamil Nadu (due two years hence), and will do nothing to risk being tarred through participation in an unpopular or inefficient government. Rather than taste ministerial office in Delhi, the DMK prefers to pursue a wait and watch policy.
It is a problem which the Left Front appreciates quite as much as Karunanidhi. Of course, the Communists have another problem; while the DMK was a pre-poll ally, the Left Front won almost all its seats by battling the Congress tooth and nail. The Kerala unit of the CPI-M has just presided over an impressive victory in the state, getting 18 of the state's 20 Lok Sabha seats. It has no desire to dilute its chances in the 2006 assembly election.
All this bickering -- both within the Left Front and between the Communists and Congressmen -- drives home the reality that there is very little in common between Sonia Gandhi and the Marxists. They have been driven together by a shared fear of the BJP, and that is not really enough to run a ministry.
I wish Sonia Gandhi well. No Indian could do otherwise because none of us wants to see India do badly. But she has begun badly by permitting her biggest supporter to spook the markets -- and that could be an omen of worse to come.