Thursday, March 6, 2014

A new government will take charge in New Delhi within a few months. There will be optimism that political change will lead to fresh policy initiatives while there will also be pessimism that political gridlock will continue in a new form.
Mexico offers a way out of the problem. Major political parties there have jointly broken a long gridlock that stood in the way of major policy reforms. As soon as he became president of Mexico in late 2012, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party unveiled a deal with the conservative National Action Party and the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution.

What Are the Pact’s Goals and Who Carries Them out?
This deal essentially listed policy initiatives that all major Mexican political parties agreed on, and helped switch the political culture from habitual conflict to strategic cooperation. The national agreement was preceded by 15 years of political bickering when little work got done because none of the three major parties held a clear majority in the Mexican parliament. Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

The Pact for Mexico has 95 proposals under five groups:
Democratic governance; transparency, accountability, and combating corruption; rights and liberties; security and justice; economic growth, employment, and competitiveness. .

  • A lot is covered in these 95 proposals, from tax reform to banning junk food in schools. 
  • The bipartisan accord has also enabled the Nieto government to break up monopolies in sectors such as telecom as well as go after the drug lords who have filled the vacuum created by a weak Mexican state.
A policy paper for the new Indian government presented by the Pune International Centre notes how the Pact for Mexico works as well as its success: 
  • “The actual implementation of these reforms is conducted through a governing council that oversees negotiations, working groups as well as laws to be submitted to Congress. 
  • This council consists of representatives from all parties and the presidency is rotated monthly among the three national party leaders. 
  • There is a committee in charge of technical coordination of the pact that is responsible for following up on the agreements of the governing council and working groups, as well as sharing communication with the public about progress and achievements gained via the pact. This body also has members from all parties. 
  • In addition, the pact’s coordinators involve stakeholders from civil society at critical points during the implementation of the reforms. 
  • According to the pact, all reforms must be completed by mid-2018, and there has been considerable progress on all fronts so far. 
  • After successfully implementing reforms in education, banking, telecom and taxation in 2013, the year ended with allowing foreign and private investment into the oil sector for the first time in 70 years.”

Can a similar Pact for India be considered as a way to break our own political gridlock, so that the country moves forward on key issues such as economic reforms, internal security, education or a more efficient welfare state?
There have been episodes of unofficial coordination between various major political parties on important national issues in recent years, but the dominant political strategy has been to block policy while in opposition. All the major political groups have been guilty of such legislative obstruction.

Much depends on the attitude of the next prime minister. Some seem to believe that the next leader of India will have to accept the harsh truth of a dysfunctional political system and thus try to run the government in a presidential style, with a powerful Prime Minister’s Office as well as a high dependence on policy through executive decisions. The strategy then will be to bypass Parliament unless absolutely necessary.
But even a presidential leader in New Delhi will have to work with powerful chief ministers in the states on issues ranging from the goods and services tax to internal security, urban reform, spending on social security schemes and infrastructure projects, for example. And a lot of important legislative work cannot get done unless there is some cooperation from the opposition parties.
A Pact for India may seem a far-fetched idea right now when there is so much bitterness in the political system, and which is getting amplified in the election season. But the success in Mexico shows that it can be done—and in fact needs to be done given the confused mandates that voters have been giving since 1989 as well as the growing power of state chief ministers. India has a workable model in the common minimum programmes that the members of various alliances have agreed upon in recent years. The challenge is to expand the arc of cooperation to more parties.
Can it be done? A lot will depend on the personality of the next prime minister, especially his ability to reach out to opponents with a deal that cuts across the current political divides.

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