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Mavericks in chrarge

Mavericks in chrarge

Author: Editorial
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 15, 2009

Remember 1996, fear the 'Third Front'

In about a week's time, India will have a new Government in place. It is possible that a fractured mandate may lead to the formation of a 'Third Front' Government, one not led by either the BJP or the Congress. Familiar voices have welcomed the prospect of such a conglomeration of regional parties, without the overarching presence of a national party. Once again it is being argued that India itself is a coalitional civilisation, and that State satraps, who are political equals, can somehow provide for an equitable distribution of resources across regions. This is romantic sociology and sounds nice in air-conditioned intellectual salons. How does it measure up to the heat and dust of governance? Can a Government without a national party spearheading it, bereft of a mainstay serve India? Rather than provide a quick and categorical answer, it would be wise to look at precedents. India's most recent example of a 'Third Front' Government was the United Front administration of 1996-98. It gave India two Prime Ministers, collapsed within a year-and-a-half and caused an early election. What was its lasting legacy?

Take the economy. The period between 1996 and 1998 saw India coping with the 'Asian flu', the financial meltdown of the East Asian 'tiger economies'. India came out of that relatively unscathed. This is being held out as a triumph for the United Front, especially in the context of the current recession. That reading is a gross oversimplification. India's economy was still largely insular then, not as externally linked as it is in 2009. Audacious steps are called for to stimulate demand this time. These could range from fiscal incentives to infrastructure spending. Both of these will necessitate the Government finding more money to spend or cutting costs or both. Any rejuvenation will also require a stable regime to boost consumer confidence. The United Front Government's 1997 Budget, with brave tax cuts and Laffer curve projections, ultimately failed because of the absence of such stability and confidence. A 2009 'Third Front' Government is likely to be fiscally profligate and devoted to populist, Left-leaning shibboleths. A similar atmosphere in the United Front years lead to a Pay Commission award that was well beyond expectations of Government employee trade unions. A ministerial committee that included such people as Mr Ram Vilas Paswan came up with a salary giveaway that sunk Government finances. State Governments were forced to match Central pay hikes and this drove State after State to bankruptcy. It took them a decade to recover.

Move to security issues. The United Front had a maverick External Affairs Minister who later became Prime Minister. He ran a lone-wolf foreign policy, depending overly on eccentric advice from one or two individuals outside the system. His so-called 'doctrine' was no more than a series of one-sided strategic giveaways to neighbouring countries. For example, the United Front Government unilaterally dismantled India's entire covert intelligence network in Pakistan. The implications are still haunting India. Even after the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008, little headway has been made within Pakistan simply because India lacks critical strategic assets in that country. It is amply clear that a 'Third Front' Government is likely to be no more than a free-for-all and could do long-term damage. India may still be saddled with one; but it must know what it is in for.

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