Amid Charges of ‘Policy Paralysis,’ India’s Government Defends Its Record

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B Mathur / Reuters

Congress party chief Gandhi (R), Indian Prime Minister Singh (C) and India's Finance Minister Mukherjee hold up copies of released report on the completion of government's three years in office, in New Delhi, May 22, 2012

Everyone wants their anniversary to be a victorious kind of affair. So yesterday — which marked the third year of India’s current government —Prime Minister Manmohan Singh probably did not relish having to spend time playing defense. Though his coalition’s leadership did not miss the opportunity to highlight its accomplishments, it also had to use the occasion to respond to growing criticism that this government seems to be increasingly incapable of battling corruption and lifting the Indian economy out of its slump. In a speech, Singh acknowledged the “frustration and anger” over corruption in the public sphere as well as questions about the “sustainability of our growth process.” But, he said, “I am confident we will prove the skeptics wrong.”

What he and the rest of the government know all too well is that those aren’t just skeptics — they’re voters. In a poll released on Monday, just about 18 months before campaigning for 2014 elections will begin anew, nearly 66% of respondents across eight Indian cities said they were dissatisfied with the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which first came to power in 2004.  A fundamental problem respondents cited is that the government is not getting enough done, particularly when it comes to curbing rising consumer prices and jump-starting the economy.

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Their sentiment echoes a critique that has been lobbed repeatedly at the government in past year by politicians, economists and analysts who say the UPA is in the throes of a“policy paralysis,” unable to pass the legislation necessary to address the nation’s most pressing concerns. The coalition has, as it pointed out yesterday, passed important bills in its one-and-a-half terms that improve citizens’ access to information, right to employment, education and gender equality, among other things. But other legislation, including laws regulating land acquisition, foreign investment in retail and corruption, have been languishing in a legislature seemingly unable to rise above its internal squabbling to move things forward.

If it’s not policy paralysis, then it’s at  least a “legislative logjam,” says M R Madhavan of the non-partisan think tank PRS Legislative Research. Whatever the alliteration, it’s not something that happened overnight. According to PRS, the number of bills being passed in Parliament has been steadily declining: India’s very first lower house, for instance, passed an average of 72 bills per year, compared to an average of 40 bills passed in the current government. Granted, a lot needed to get done quickly in a newly independent India. But there’s still plenty to do in the world’s largest democracy, and when laws that don’t even raise divisive ideological questions are getting stuck in the spokes, there’s cause for concern.

Part of the problem is that MPs simply aren’t meeting as much as they used to. In the 1950s, the Parliament’s lower house, called the Lok Sabha, met an average of 127 days, and the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, met 93 days. Compare that to last year, when both houses averaged only 73 days. Though some of that can be attributed to the fact that a lot of bill analysis is now done by committee outside official Parliament time, it still adds up to less debate.

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The other, arguably larger, part of the problem is lawmakers’ efficiency when they do meet. Despite the fact that the last session, which adjourned yesterday, met most of the days it was scheduled to, only 14% of the session’s time was used to discuss legislation in Lok Sabha, and only 16% in Rajya Sabha. The lost hours, according to PRS, were due to debates over “non-availability of bags for crop storage, Telangana, Aircel-Maxis deal, Bofors and Naxalism.” In fact, evaluating the number of days the current legislature has met since it came into power in 2009, and the amount of time within those days it has spent discussing laws, Madhavan says this Parliament is shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

The problem has revived an old debate about the very structure of India’s government, with some politicians arguing that Parliament’s efficacy as an institution has run its course and its time to do away with the British system. The coalition’s leaders, however, reject that any of this amounts to a crisis. “This whole accusation of ‘policy paralysis’ is a complete bogie,” Manish Tewari, spokesperson for the All India Congress Committee, the decision-making body of the Congress Party, said in a phone interview last week. Referring to a long-range missile India tested last month, he went on to say: “The country which is supposed to be suffering would not go around testing the Agni V. Not that we’re being jingoistic about it, but things have been going on as usual.” The PM, for his part, also batted down a question yesterday on the subject, saying that the accusation of policy paralysis can be “misplaced” and that “the facts can correct the perception.”

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Two facts that have people worried these days are, 1) that the rupee just hit all-time low against the dollar and, 2) that the economy has slowed from its target growth rate of 9% to a projected 6.9% in 2011-2012. Some argue that the government’s sluggishness on passing reforms that could help correct the latter are not so much due to paralysis as much as distraction, concentrating on expensive populist measures like subsidies aimed at wooing voters, rather than the reforms needed to secure long-term growth. “[They’re] focusing on entitlement rather than empowerment,” says Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He says part of the problem is that the current coalition inherited its economic momentum when first came to power in 2004, and “rather than conserve and nurture it, they took it for granted. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Singh, who is widely credited with ushering in the 1991 reforms that opened up India’s economy and kickstarted that growth, must feel the atmosphere of disapproval keenly. A little over a week ago, the PM briefly parted with his famous reserve to deliver a rare rebuke to Parliament. Standing before a specially convened session of the legislature in his trademark specs and an immaculate blue turban and vest, the soft-spoken leader chided the men and women sitting before him — and, in a way, himself — for their less-than-stellar performance.“How we conduct ourselves — how the parliament conducts itself — is a way of showing respect… to the memory of those who created and built this symbol of freedom and dignity,” Singh read from a prepared speech. “In our own way, each one of us shares the blame for this state of affairs.”

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