From promise to compromise

LANGUAGE facilitates communication; but becomes a trap when misused. The misuse may not be deliberate, merely complacent. But a complacent phrase can enter the discourse, shape decision or indecision and leave a sharp, self-inflicted wound.

By M J Akbar

Published: Mon 2 Jun 2008, 10:03 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:22 PM

"Midterm election" is a case in point. One is not being pedantic; a midterm election does not have to be precisely in the middle of a government's term. But there is a political definition of "midterm" that separates it clearly from the "end-term" phase of a government's life.

In the British-Indian system of a parliamentary democracy, a "midterm" election means any election called prematurely, either because the government feels it is advantageous to go back to the people, or because it no longer has the majority to survive, and Parliament cannot offer an alternative ruling formation.

A government slips from "midterm" to "end-term" condition not when it has lost its majority, but when it has lost its ability to govern. Only a confident government goes for a midterm poll because it believes it will be re-elected; an "end-term" election takes place under an anxious one. Tony Blair, the most successful Labour Prime Minister in history, won three elections by going to the polls early. He had not lost his majority; he chose an earlier date because he considered it politically propitious, and it was the point at which he could maximise the extent of his victory.

His successor, Gordon Brown, took office a year ago and entered his "end-term" phase within four months, when he somersaulted out of an implicit promise to call an early election. He may retain the confidence of Parliament, but he lost the confidence of the country. Since then he has been Dead Man Walking. If Labour does not change him he will take Labour to the grave: where else would you expect a Dead Man to go?

A calendar has something, but not a whole lot, to do with a government's credibility. Governments do not explode suddenly, in a blaze of fireworks. The more objective metaphor is colder. Governments melt like icebergs, piece by piece, before sinking into oblivion. The moment this process accelerates, the "end-term" begins.

The decisive moment for the Manmohan Singh government came last August, when it seemed, for about a week, ready to challenge his coalition in pursuit of a policy which the Prime Minister believed was in the national interest: the Indo-US nuclear deal. The force and conviction with which the Prime Minister hyped up the deal was sufficient to convince many in-between that there must be something in what he said.

The Prime Minister was, not so subtly, transferring his personal credibility to the deal, and many were ready to buy this transfer. But when the same Prime Minister walked away from the nuclear deal in order to save his government, his personal credibility took a beating. He became just another politician who was ready to compromise the national interest in order to remain in power. If the deal was truly so vital to India's future, then it was more important than the few remaining months of his government. And if it was less important than his government, then it was not so vital after all.

After that, the Communists began to wag the dog, creating just enough distance from the alliance they had delivered, baby-sat and nurtured. Last August, the Congress could have signed the deal and increased its seats in a subsequent election.

After Gujarat, its tide began to ebb. In August 2007 the Gujarat elections had not taken place. The BJP was still a defeated party. Narendra Modi not only saved his party; he also shifted the key debate to governance. His victory was on the single issue of good governance. And just at that point, the Manmohan Singh coalition's reputation for competent governance, never particularly high, began to wither. If it had tainted itself with compromise on the nuclear deal, it began to seem pathetic in tackling economic issues.

It is now evident that inflation ate away any goodwill for the government at a rapid pace: the fire of the belly rarely leaves authority untouched.

The mismanagement of oil prices speaks for itself. Oil prices did not start rising last week; this has been a phenomenon spread over the whole of last year. Many serious economists were predicting the prices we are witnessing today.

A government with time on its side has the ability to take tough decisions. By winter it was clear that the government had limited options: it could raise prices, which would mean risking the stability of the coalition and a further push on inflation. If that was unacceptable, it could have initiated measures to reduce consumption.

Or, it could have foreseen the crisis ahead, argued that only a government with renewed strength could handle such a crisis, and gone to the people. It did nothing. Today, it is in a complete bind. There is no money to meet higher costs (particularly after the great squander of national wealth in order to bribe voters in the Budget), and no will to raise it from consumers. If prices do not go up, we will see an oil famine in the country as oil companies run out of funds.

A government that could have won an election last August is sitting, heavy-bottomed, on a panic button eight months later.

There is only pseudo-drama in the much-debated question on whether the government should call an election in October-November or wait for the scheduled end of Parliament in March-April. It doesn't matter much anymore. The Opposition, which was once eager for a midterm poll in the forlorn belief that anything was better than the status quo is now quite happy at the thought that elections might take place only next March. In its view, the longer this government sticks around in office, the more seats it will lose. Yes, of course, a delay would enable some ministers to make more money, but who can argue with the kismat of the corrupt?

The Manmohan Singh government has travelled from promise to compromise; it will need huge dollops of good 'kismat' to travel any further.

M J Akbar is Chairman and Director of Publications, Covert

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