Economy attracts opposites
New Delhi, April 25: A discernible, if also limited and tenuous, compact is unfolding between the treasury and the main Opposition on the sidelines of the policy impasse that has shackled domestic growth and shaken international investor confidence.
Behind their exterior of shrill, and daily, antagonism, the Manmohan Singh government and the BJP have begun to quietly reach out to each other in a bid to dissolve the deadlock in decision-making.
For the record, and for their respective audiences, both sides blame each other for the stalemate. But removed from the obligatory political bluster, both may have divined enlightened self-interest in breaking the economic logjam.
The government because it realises it can't last the length of its remaining term being lame duck. The BJP because it fears having to bear blame for laming not just a government but also a buoyant economy.
On a day Standard and Poor's lowered the outlook on India's sovereign rating to negative from stable, a senior BJP leader told The Telegraph: "We certainly do not want to be seen as having contributed to a general economic downslide, and to that extent, we are open and willing to co-operate with the government on pushing second-generation reforms and governance imperatives. We are not here to hurt the national interest, it is for the government to convince us that its policies are aimed at the greater good."
He was not entirely averse to the suggestion that while chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu's caution call from an American platform that reforms had been stalled till 2014 may have embarrassed the government, it also triggered an alarm within thinking BJP circles: could this not also mean that the BJP would be perceived in the global eye as petty spoilers?
"We are the Opposition but we also have been and wish to be the party of governance," the BJP leader said. "The perception that we are opposing for the sake of opposing will damage us."
Rajya Sabha leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley's readiness to back stalled pension reforms and consider support to other legislation, if there is due consultation and accommodation, stems from the growing sense within the BJP that it does not want to be perceived as mindlessly obstructionist.
The government, it would appear, has played astutely on the BJP's subliminal fears of being seen as cussed spoilers, employing a series of lateral gestures to create more conducive atmospherics with the Opposition.
Some instances: the naming of the leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, as head of a key parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka last week. The invitation to Swaraj and to L.K. Advani to the luncheon table the Prime Minister laid out for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The open-ended offer to discuss "any issues" that BJP and other non-Congress chief ministers may wish to bring up at the May 5 meeting whose centrepiece is the contentious National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC).
"If we in government are worried over the slowdown, the BJP is equally worried because they too could attract the charge of obstructing decisions to a degree that the nation has to come to a halt," a top government source said. "They are not fools, they are equally aware they might have a political and electoral price to pay. If we have reached out, the response from their end too has been warm."
Asked to illustrate the reciprocal flow of warmth, a tangential, though critical, example was trotted out. "Apart from the positive noises on supporting reform legislation, look at the way Brajesh Mishra has advocated the government's position and concerns on the army chief issue. He is not part of us, he is part of them and yet he was articulating issues forcefully, he was saying things we probably wanted to say but could not. These are signals to be read."
So is this the eve of a new bipartisan politics of consensus on larger issues? Perish the thought. Read the signals but don't read too much into them, is the cautionary disclaimer echoing from both sides.
On the ruling side, it is very clear that the reach-out effort is a strictly governmental effort, not a political one. The Congress party has nothing to do with it; the government, driven by compulsions and often hobbled by its allies, does. There exists a never-the-twain-shall-meet polarity between the Congress and the BJP and there is no altering that fundamental truism of the polity.
At the BJP end, the riders are all too many. For all its anxieties on being seen as a drag on progress, the party is still not willing to support any move or legislation blindly. "We are," as one leader said, "the Opposition, we are not here to oblige the government or its objectives." It remains averse to FDI in multi-brand retail, it will oppose petro price hikes and diesel deregulation, it will not give on issues "merely because they are dressed up as second generation reforms".
Don't expect any warmth to populate the picking of the next President in a few weeks' time, expect heated tussle. Don't expect any carpet concord on the floor of Parliament, expect recurrent discord, especially if there's fresh whiff of scandal floating into the House. Don't expect the Prime Minister and leader of Opposition dining together too often, expect them to be turning the tables on each other.
That fashionable existentialist descriptor — policy paralysis — may have forced the two on a ledge above the cantankerous din of politicking, but that ledge is narrow and very fragile.