You do all the necessary spadework but someone else takes the credit. Sounds unfair. But that is the fact across all walks of life. Politics is no exception.
The former Congress-led UPA government seeded the idea of providing Unique Identification (UID) to all the citizens. It rolled out implementation of the Aadhaar card scheme and even tried, unsuccessfully though, legislating the national ID Bill, which, in its new avatar, has recently been passed by Parliament, after it was pushed by the NDA—the very party that opposed it earlier. Now the NDA gets all the credit. It would not be far-fetched to say something similar even for the real estate Bill that Parliament passed in part one of the current budget session.
One could cite other examples from the not too distant past. The insurance reforms Bill immediately comes to mind. The then Congress party in power constituted, in 1993, the Malhotra Committee to examine insurance sector reforms. It set up the interim Insurance Regulatory Authority that did all the necessary groundwork for opening up of the insurance sector to private players. It even tried legislating insurance reforms Bill but was unsuccessful due to the opposition by the BJP and the Left parties.
Later, when the BJP-led NDA government came to power, it managed to get the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Bill passed in 1999, taking the credit for it.
There are other examples too. In opposing the pending Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill, one could argue that the Congress is doing what the BJP had done to it earlier.
Is this the case? If yes, is it a smart move on the part of the Congress?
Well, taking credit of any legislative success is a big motivation for any political party. But conditions have to be right for achieving any legislative success. Mooting an idea is the first baby step in a series of leaps that are needed to achieve any legislative change. Discussing and deliberating on any reform is an integral part of the process aimed at enhancing collective understanding of what any reform entails for different stakeholders. The process doesn’t stop at that. Once a good understanding is gathered, it has to be communicated well to the policy-makers, the civil society members, and indeed to all the interested parties. Further, different provisions in any draft Bill have to be tweaked to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives. Finally, getting the draft Bill passed in Parliament requires a political strategy for behind-the-scene negotiations among political parties as well as managing the floor in both the houses of Parliament.
One could argue that the reforms mooted/initiated by the Congress-led UPA government—for which the credit is now going to the NDA government—had not moved far enough in the legislative process to be able to translate its reform ideas into Parliamentary ‘Acts’. Or it could be that the NDA government is turning out to be smarter than the Congress party, whose support in the Rajya Sabha happens to be necessary for Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government to get any Bill, including the GST Bill, passed.
The Congress could act smarter not by opposing the GST Bill, but in fact by supporting it. Why do I say so? The political landscape in India has altered. For the Modi government, development is the key mantra and good governance is the key modality—to be achieved at high speed. The Congress can play an effective role by outsmarting the Modi government. How can it do that? By being a step ahead of the Modi government.
By asking and extending support for higher-deeper-wider reforms than what the Modi government can deliver;
By keeping a sharp eye on Modi’s pet schemes whose implementation challenge will be “the big gorilla” around (this can provide the Congress enough ammunition to keep the Modi government on its toes);
By not just holding the government accountable but also raising people’s (voters’) expectation from it. In the changing political landscape in the country, an opposition party too has a huge scope for earning brownie points in the eyes of voters if it plays an effective role.
That the GST roll out is a good policy idea is reckoned by all the political parties. If the Congress wants to play—and wants to be seen as playing—an effective role, it needs to pro-actively support the GST Bill in the same manner as it did the real estate Bill: writing to the Prime Minister and seeking its early passage.
The author is a development economist, formerly with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank