At our usual gossip sessions in Mumbai over coffee earlier last week with a particularly cerebral star of corporate India (who had better go unnamed for his own good), the talk shifted to the current obsession in his universe: our governance paralysis. Where government has no leader whose writ runs, and where everybody seems to have the power to veto and block anything. Our country, he said, had become like Poland of the 16th to 18th century.
Apparently, in that period, Poland had a system whereby each member of its parliament had a veto. So, any member of parliament could block any decision. Everything, as a result, came to a standstill. I did a quick search later on the internet and found references and explanations for this phenomenon of liberum veto (Latin for “free veto”), which was prevalent in that period in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Some detail needs mentioning. In the Sejm (as that parliament was called), any member could shout “Nie Pozwalam” (Polish for “I do not permit”) to not just block a legislation from being passed, but also to bring about an immediate adjournment and repeal any laws already passed.
There must have been some oomph in this for it to survive almost two centuries. India has taken its time getting there. But now that we have done so, we are out Pole-ing the Poles. We have seen all and sundry — even four Andhra Pradesh MPs from the TDP on the Telangana issue — block our Parliament. Two AGP MPs blocked a vital constitutional amendment to sanctify a strategic agreement with Bangladesh by snatching the draft from the hands of External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, and so on. The virus has proliferated beyond our Parliament. It afflicts the entire cabinet, our regulators and the bureaucracy. So we now have the entire establishment staffed by omnipotent “no-men”. Whether admirable or abominable depends on which side of that particular debate you are on.
The Polish parallel is excitingly apt. Let’s take a few key examples. The most striking, of course, is our ministry of commerce and industry (or rather, the Department of Industrial Promotion and Policy, DIPP). The veto there has trickled down to the joint secretary level. One of them can routinely produce truly exotic objections to any new reform, particularly if it involves a three-letter abomination called FDI. From FDI in retail to the relaxation of foreign investment in aviation,