A few stray thoughts, random observations and points of view, in the week of Maharashtra’s astonishing coup and counter-coup.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is like the Ganga. Anyone who enters it is cleansed of all sins. Mukul Roy, Himanta Biswa Sarma and Janardhan Reddy have been purified through immersion in the past. Ajit Pawar was absolved last week, though there is some confusion over the degree of it since he didn’t actually join the party.
He was certainly in need of a cleansing, as the foremost example in Maharashtra of a politician devoid of vision, hungry only for power and wealth. His uncle and mentor Sharad Pawar has always been suspect himself, but any allegations of venality went hand in hand with his reputation as a capable administrator who never entirely abandoned progressive ideals.
A similar generational decline is playing out in Andhra Pradesh. The former chief minister of the undivided Andhra, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, was said to be avaricious, but also genuinely interested in improving the lot of the poor. His son Jagan, the current head of the truncated Andhra, appears to have inherited only the negative aspects of YSR’s legacy.
A final hurrah
Like the Marathas at Panipat, Sharad Pawar long ago flubbed his chance of capturing Delhi. He did, however, deserve a final hurrah, and this election and its aftermath is it. The 80 year-old cancer survivor fought relentlessly while his allies in the Congress all but gave up and took a vacation. Had the Congress possessed more talent and self-belief, the centrist coalition might have pulled off an improbable victory.
How did the United Progressive Alliance of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress run the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance so close despite being wiped out in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year? State results have diverged significantly from national ones since Narendra Modi came to power. The nationalistic narrative plays well in the General Election but pocketbook issues dominate state polls.
The BJP lost a succession of states last year, and now Maharashtra has joined Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This would have been inconceivable had the public at large felt that the economy was on track. The votes are, at least in part, a signal of economic distress.
Most economists and ratings agencies have now pencilled in a sub-5% GDP growth for the second quarter of the financial year. The October-December period could be worse. Major indicators like electricity consumption, freight haulage, the services Purchasing Managers’ Index, merchandise exports,and business confidence are flashing red, and no sector is flourishing.
Interest rate cuts have failed to alleviate the credit squeeze. When the Shapoorji Pallonji Group finds itself short of cash, you know the crisis is serious. Corporate tax cuts have shored up company bottom lines and the capital markets at a massive cost.
The government now plans a privatisation drive to improve its fiscal position. I’m happy Air India is to be sold, but don’t expect such measures to invigorate an economy hobbled by deep structural flaws. It appears that nothing short of a recession will move the Central government’s thinking beyond stop-gap measures.
Taking the wheel
Devendra Fadnavis has departed after an undistinguished if tolerable stint as Maharashtra chief minister. In his place, we will have a Thackeray taking the wheel of governance for the first time. Bal Thackeray was fond of saying things like, “Make me Prime Minister for a day and I will solve the Kashmir problem.” His son Uddhav will quickly discover how much easier it is to make grand pronouncements from the dais during the party’s Shivaji Park Dussehra rally than to tackle actual problems.
It is unclear how long this coalition of unlikely allies will last, and what long-term damage allying with the Shiv Sena will do to the Congress. The Congress has tied up with communal Muslim parties in the past, so its secular stance was always wobbly. Nevertheless, the Sena is a different kettle of fish from those small-time outfits. One can expect any Congress appeals to secularism for the next decade to be met with derisory fingers pointed to its pact with the Sena. That might be a small price to pay considering how little political advantage the term now offers.
The BJP’s credibility has taken a severe blow with nothing to show for it. Success being its own justification in many circles, Amit Shah was compared to Chanakya while he appeared to have turned the tables on the Sena. Now, however, the party must live with having made its peace with a man it promised to bring to justice, a person implicated in scandals which go beyond financial skulduggery. It is one thing to make money while doling out 2G licenses, and quite another to embezzle funds meant to bring water to some of the thirstiest parts of a state.
Spare a thought for President Ramnath Kovind, the workshy head of state who had to wake before dawn to revoke President’s rule, thus allowing the swearing in of Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar. Being a rubber stamp isn’t as easy a life as it is made out to be.
On the positive side, consider that a crisis like the one in Maharashtra would have involved war in the past. Civilians would have died, and those who intrigued and lost would have been beheaded or blinded and sent into exile. There’s a lot to be said for democracy even in its worst moments.
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