Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Not much to celebrate

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Column in Business Standard, August 14, 2015

When the prime minister gets up on the Red Fort this Saturday on the occasion of the nation’s 68th birthday he ought to, if he were to be completely frank, have some explaining to do. When he made his hour-long inaugural speech last year it was laced with rhetoric and laden with promises: bank accounts for the poor, safety of women, better futures for girl children and the winding up of the Planning Commission. This time the “Sapnon ka Saudagar” (Vendor of Dreams) act will be hard to follow. His party has emerged from one of the worst sessions of Parliament ever witnessed, a spectacular example of non-performance, held hostage by an Opposition (reduced to 44 MPs) that it regarded as so inconsequential that it could not officially be designated as such.

At 16 working days the Monsoon Session of the 16th Lok Sabha was not merely the shortest but, according to PRS Legislative Research, the parliamentary tracker, virtually pointless. Only one minor Bill, pertaining to the Delhi High Court, was passed by the Lok Sabha; all major legislation from the goods and services tax to the Land Acquisition Act and nearly a dozen others were consigned to some unforeseeable future. What remains imprinted in the public memory on the nation’s birthday are scenes of noisy disruption and interminable adjournment culminating in a climax of vengeful loathing. Surely the spiteful exchange between Sushma Swaraj and Rahul Gandhi with its references to the corruption of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters wouldn’t pass muster as a script for a B-grade Bollywood drama?
Parliamentary observers may busy themselves in drawing out the political nuance of the tit-for-tat strategies plotted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress but the wider public can only perceive the waste of public money by elected leaders. If by the Rajya Sabha secretariat’s own calculation running Parliament costs Rs 29,000 a minute, then the expenditure at six working hours a day for both Houses of Parliament, runs into losses of many crores.

During his Red Fort speech last year Narendra Modi extolled the beauty of India’s constitution and democracy that had enabled a “poor boy” to lead the nation. He urged all members of Parliament and political parties to take joint decisions ahead. “I can proudly say,” he thundered, “that the session of Parliament just concluded reflects our thinking and intentions. We are not for moving forward on the basis of or by virtue of our majority. We want to move ahead on the basis of strong consensus.”

That is not his only promise of forward movement that lies in tatters. The BJP-led government’s 15 months in office are a chronicle of false starts and U-turns. Consensus on major land, labour and tax reforms may have proved a chimera but it has been chasing its own tail in implementing eminently doable reforms. It has willfully thrown good money after bad, infusing Rs 7,000 crore in ailing public sector banks, indulging badly-run companies like Air India with more funds, provoking strikes and controversies over appointments in universities and institutions, and trying to enforce untenable prohibitions.

In recent days the courts have come down hard on the Modi government’s ill-advised notions of what the public should see or eat. Mukul Rohatgi, the attorney general, had to swiftly backtrack last week on the blanket ban on all adult porn sites and clarify that what was intended was restraints on child porn. The ongoing Maggi noodles battle in the Bombay High Court is not only an example of the Food Safety and Standards Authority’s highly questionable food testing ability but the government’s ham-handed obduracy. Apart from raising the hackles of a major foreign corporation doing business in India, it is unable to answer why a product found safe to eat in countries with far more exacting safety standards, is found unfit for consumption in India? In other matters, too, for example in the relentless hounding of the activist Teesta Setalvad, the government’s actions are seen to be interfering, arbitrary, petty-minded and vindictive.

And not particularly efficient, either. If the mounds of uncollected garbage and dire shortage of clean public toilets in cities are anything to go by, the prime minister’s “Swachh Bharat” is the most faltering of start-ups. “In order to fulfill the aspirations of people we have to sharpen the tool called government machinery, we have to make it more keen, more dynamic, and it is in this direction we will be working,” Mr Modi declared from the Red Fort’s ramparts last year.

As he hoists the tricolor today, the prime minister might want to answer why he was missing in action on the only day Parliament functioning to end up in a virulent slanging match. The Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi may have discovered an inner Sanjay Gandhi in his newfound spirit of aggression but the BJP’s ministers and MPs sank as low. As national birthdays go, it’s not much of an occasion to celebrate.

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