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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

The Hawa Mahal of our politics

June 25, 2008

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Have you visited Jaipur's famous Hawa Mahal? It is actually more 'hawa' than 'mahal', a lovely facade with little of substance once you look behind the screens. You could say that the Indo-US nuclear pact has become the Hawa Mahal of contemporary Indian politics.

Forget all the huffing and puffing over the deal, it is just so much hot air! Neither the Left Front nor the Congress is particularly interested in actually negotiating some kind of an agreement, and the so-called coordination committee meetings are an absolute joke. (A recent meeting was called off because Pranab Mukherjee and Prakash Karat couldn't reach any agreement; in other words, the 'meetings' were meant as rubber-stamp events staged for the cameras rather than for serious negotiation.)

If the nuclear deal is not an issue any longer, it can still serve as a perfectly good excuse. An excuse for what, you may ask? For calling a general election before it is due, of course!

One private assessment puts it very bluntly: The United Progressive Alliance risks losing two Lok Sabha seats for every week that it continues in power from now on.

The chief reason, of course, is that prices have gone completely out of control. Dr Manmohan Singh's [Images] team of economic 'experts' can cry themselves blue in the face that everything will be under control by September. Do they have a shred of credibility left?

To refresh everyone's memory, rising prices became an issue at least as far back as January 2007, eighteen months ago. There was an absolute firestorm of protests -- including within the Congress itself -- after the losses in Punjab, Uttarakhand, and the wealthy municipal bodies in Delhi and Mumbai. It was at about that time that the various mouthpieces of the government and of the Congress party began referring to that mysterious three-month deadline within which prices would fall. Has that happened?

I fully accept that the rising prices of fuel and food items is a global phenomenon. But does anyone see any hope of prices falling across the world? The winter rains have failed yet again in parts of Australia while there have been devastating floods in the farming heartland of the United States. The Canadians say this year's crop will be a full 20 per cent less than last year while Kazakhstan has banned all wheat exports. All this adds up to more shortages in the short term, not fewer.

The Manmohan Singh ministry now says it is raising the MSP (minimum support price). That announcement would have been more helpful had it been made much earlier, preferably before farmers started preparing their land. Don't forget that the Union Agriculture Ministry told the world that it would not raise the price just three-and-a-half months ago. (The pronouncement was made, appropriately, on April 1, 2008, All Fools' Day!)

Shortly after that announcement, someone whose economic instincts I trust put it succinctly: "The Government of India would rather pay 100% more to foreign farmers than 30% more to Indian farmers."

As for petroleum prices, well, there is nothing that any government could do to bring them down. But it could have tried to ease the process of cutting the subsidy burden without waiting for the Karnataka elections -- a political decision if ever there was one.

The nuclear pact's potential supporters are, I suspect, chiefly among the relatively better off, particularly the middle class. But the reality is that this same group is already angry about rising prices, and all talk of a pie-in-the-sky nuclear pact will cut little ice.

By the way, you may remember that last August I warned that Australia might refuse to sell uranium -- pact or no pact -- if Kevin Rudd took power; he is now the prime minister of Australia, and has made the same point. Pie-in-the-sky indeed!

For the record, rising oil has also jacked up uranium prices. In 2007, the United States cut a deal with Ukraine, buying old missiles from the former Soviet republic to strip them of the uranium they contained. Where is the uranium to come from? Or does the Manmohan Singh government now want India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as well?

Rising prices are reason enough for the Congress to fear late elections. The damage has already been done; waiting longer will result in greater risks. But the Congress cannot pull down its own government, can it? It needs to provoke its 'supporters' into withdrawing!

On the other side of the fence, the Left Front suffered a string of defeats in the local body elections in West Bengal. Roughly a quarter of the electorate in the state consists of Muslims (who are not exactly insignificant in Kerala [Images] either). The CPI-M thinks it stands to benefit from polarising the voters, making it a stark question of pro-Bush or anti-Bush.

The Congress fears late polls but it wants an excuse to call a general election before the due date (May 2009). The Left Front sees no advantage in continuing to prop up the Manmohan Singh ministry, and some benefits in taking a clear anti-American stance. The smaller parties are now jostling for advantage. In other words, no senior politicians are concerned with governance any longer, so we may as well go in for immediate polls.

The Indo-US nuclear pact may come with more strings attached -- and fewer benefits -- than the Manmohan Singh ministry would have us believe. But it could provide one definite advantage, it could give both the Congress and the CPI-M the figleaf of an excuse that both feel they need to call a general election. What are the odds of winter polls?

T V R Shenoy