Remember former US President George Bush Sr, who said “Read my lips”, promising not to raise taxes? He had to impose taxes later when his budget math went for a six. He got a lot of boos from rival politicians and the media, but boos are better than boo-boos.
So when the Congress made a laundry list yesterday (1 December) of the BJP’s U-turns on policy after coming to power, what matters is where it did those about-turns: was back-tracking the right thing to do, or the wrong thing? If it was the wrong one, the government needs to be hauled over the coals. If not, it should get a boo and a pat.
Ajay Maken, Congress General Secretary, scored good political points by listing the areas where the BJP did U-turns in a booklet titled “Chhe maheene paar, U-turn Sarkar” (Six months later, a U-turn government). He said: “This government has made 25 U-turns in the last around 180 days. That's an average of one U-turn every seven to eight days.”
Among the U-turns listed are policies which the BJP had blackballed or delayed when it was in the opposition: allowing 49 percent FDI in insurance, the Aadhaar unique ID scheme, the direct benefits transfer (DBT) scheme (paying cash instead of indirect subsidies to the poor), respecting the confidentiality clause in double-tax avoidance agreements (that is, not naming the persons on the black money list), and the proposed swap of land enclaves with Bangladesh, among other things.
Among the more contestable U-turns are the alleged BJP promise to bring back black money in 100 days, failure to check cross-border incursions by China, resuming talks with Pakistan and then calling them off, and having a jumbo-sized ministry.
This is good politics and such attacks are important to keep any government on its toes. So kudos to Maken for the same.
However, there are U-turns and there are U-turns. The question is: if FDI in insurance is good for India, it is good that the BJP did a U-turn. If Aadhaar is vital for implementing the DBT scheme, it is good that the BJP is eating its words (I have doubts about Aadhaar, but that is another story). It is good for fiscal rectitude and preventing leakage of money meant for the poor. If the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh makes it easier to prevent border infiltration, so be it.
There is no getting away from the reality that politicians behave differently when they have the responsibility to run a government than when they just have to oppose it. Even if we assume that Indian politicians are far more changeable than politicians elsewhere, the difference is probably the result of the greater levels of hypocrisy we see in Indian society in other areas too. Our politicians are just mirroring the greater hypocrisies of the society they serve.
Moreover, it is not as if there are no U-turns even within the same government. For example, the Congress party announced the DBT scheme with great fanfare in 2012 and thought it was a vote winner. It even coined the slogan “Aapka paisa, aapke haath.” But as elections approached, the party got cold feet and put the scheme in cold storage.
P Chidambaram, after promising to stick to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act in UPA-1, abandoned the goal in his last budget even though it was easily achievable. He did this to accommodate the farm loan waiver scheme before elections.
And some of the U-turns mentioned by Maken are on the borderline of credibility. The promise to bring back black money was nothing more than loud poll rhetoric, and it worked for the BJP. It is also not clear that Modi literally promised to bring back all black money in 100 days; his party now claims wriggle room by saying he only meant he would act on this front in 100 days. In any case, what matters is whether the broader goal is kept in mind and whether policies are reoriented to prevent the generation of black money, and bring at least some of it back. This could well happen – but it may take much, much longer than 100 days.
As for the BJP’s alleged inability to stop border incursions by China, the proof of the success or failure of its policy can only be judged over the long term. Trying to escalate matters every time there are incursions is hardly the sensible thing to do, even though making our intent to oppose Chinese encroachments and expressing our displeasure clearly has to be part of policy.
In this area, in fact, Modi’s foreign policy stance has been very clear and consistent: he is building bridges with all parties which feel Chinese pressures – from Japan to Australia to Vietnam and the US. This is sending the right message to the Chinese. Border defences are also likely to be strengthened.
U-turns are a part of politics and good sense. In the face of reality, if governments don’t do U-turns, that is a cause for worry. We don’t want pig-headed governments.