Coalition crisis in India?

India has a coalition government brought about as a reaction to political crisis. The partnership of Sonya Ghandi and Manmohan Singh now faces a political crisis of its own. In this respect there are parallels with the problems of the UK’s coalition government

India and the United Kingdom both have coalition governments facing tough political situations. But the crises they are grappling with also have various differences, making comparisons difficult. A BBC report [abbreviated below] suggests

An unshakeable understanding between Mr Singh and Congress [party] President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ensured political stability in the country. Frequent meetings between the two suggested a neat division of responsibility between party and government.

In the past few months, [in early 2011] the personal equation may have continued, but things have begun going horribly wrong for the Congress-led coalition. Inflation, corruption scandals, a massive and ongoing agitation for a separate state of Telangana in southern India, apparent favours in the allocation of land, the abuse of discretionary powers by state leaders: everything seemed to go wrong at the same time for Mr Singh and his government.

Long considered a man of unimpeachable integrity, Mr Singh coasted to a second term as the prime minister of the world’s second most populous nation [in May 2009]. With the opposition in disarray, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government appeared to be on a roll.

The Phone-licences scandal

The corruption scandal erupted anew in February 2011. Anil Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Communications, has been questioned as part of a probe into a phone-license selling scandal:

An ongoing investigation is looking into whether mobile phone licences were sold at below-market prices in 2008. Claims that the government lost more than $30bn (£18.6bn) in revenue have caused months of political conflict and shaken investor confidence. Reliance Communications shares have declined 30% in value this year, making them among the worst performers on the Bombay Stock Exchange’s main Sensitive Index. As well as hurting the stock market, the scandal has caused political turmoil in India.

Earlier this month, federal officials arrested former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja. They alleged that Mr Raja violated guidelines in the second-generation (2G) phone license sale, and conspired to favour certain telecom companies. India’s chief auditor said in November that the 2G licences were sold for about a tenth of their value. The government has questioned the figure, claiming it is too low.

Above suspicion

Mr Singh seeks to defend his own impressively high reputation as an ethical leader. He claims that the coalition must remain “above suspicion” (the quote referring to Shakespeare’s play and the necessary status of the wife of Julius Caesar). Extreme ethical leadership presents its own dilemmas. Symbolically it places unreasonable demands on most leaders to be seen as beyond reproach, the idealism of a Caesar’s wife. This is a lot to expect of frail human beings in general, and perhaps of politicians in particular. Mr Singh may retain his personal reputation, but the rough-house of politics may make the claims harder to maintain for the coalition in its entirety.

Back in England

Which brings us nicely back to Mr Cameron, Nick Clegg, and their coalition government of conservatives and liberal democrats in the UK. Currently, [Feb 2011] Mr Cameron, while not aspiring to the ethical status of a Caesar’s wife, risks political trouble from his commitment to the Big Society concept. The coalition now risks further unwanted evidence of tensions as Clegg and Cameron lead opposing factions arguing for (Clegg) and against (Cameron) in a referendum for an electoral reform to a transferable vote system.

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