India Insight

Mining for votes in the middle of Coalgate

By Reuters Staff
September 8, 2012

By Shashank Chouhan

It took more than 10 days for the chief of India’s ruling party to react to the ‘Coalgate’ episode that has tainted Manmohan Singh’s government and blocked parliamentary proceedings in the monsoon session that limped to its close on Friday.

But what was the reaction of Sonia Gandhi to alleged irregularities in coal block allocations that might have cost the treasury billions of dollars? Here’s what Gandhi told her party’s lawmakers at a meeting: “Let us stand up and fight, fight with a sense of purpose and fight aggressively.”

Instead of reprimanding her lawmakers over corruption allegations, she goaded them to take the fight to the enemy camp — the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Media reports about her speech said she made it clear that the Congress party must respond to the “negative politics” of the BJP in upcoming state assembly elections.

The Congress-led coalition government, now in its second consecutive term, has been unable to work out a fair, transparent method of coal block allocations. And when the country’s auditor smelled a scandal, Congress resorted to the easiest reaction: attack the opposition. Manmohan Singh preferred to keep silent – again — dismissing the auditor’s findings much like his government did in the 2G telecom scandal. Add to that the sheer absence of floor management in parliament, and what we get is chaos in a noisier, less productive parliamentary democracy.

Not that the BJP can come out of this unblemished. Its obstructionism points to its desperation. In fact, when corruption fighter and media darling Anna Hazare had raised his voice, the BJP closed ranks with the Congress, saying nothing was above parliament and its power to legislate.

Now it looks like the BJP has eaten a healthy helping of crow. Arun Jaitley, BJP leader in parliament’s upper house, said: “There are occasions when obstruction in parliament brings greater benefit to the country … Our strategy does not permit that we allow the government to use parliament to end this debate without any accountability.”

This isn’t how you make the executive accountable to the legislature. It’s a street fight, not a sober, deliberate attempt to run a democracy.

In accepting that they are ready for mid-term polls, the BJP has shown that this strategy is a lot about getting back to power in the upcoming state elections and the 2014 federal election.

And what happens after the monsoon session? The citizens missed a chance to hear all sides, the opposition missed the opportunity to nail the government and the treasury benches failed to gain the people’s confidence.

In the absence of debates and facts being presented on the floor of the house, the government and the opposition have taken to communicating through the media – an old standby. Press conferences have become the norm, and acerbic television discussions have replaced parliamentary debates. The 140 characters of Twitter and leaked documents fill the gaps.

Coalgate has become a media circus in which it is tough to separate fact from fantasy. It has also possibly become yet another electoral opportunity in the run-up to 2014 — the question is: for whom?

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