Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


India, il Professore, and Italy┤s political crisis
Corriere della Sera - March 1st 2007

I suppose I should ask myself, with a weary sigh: why should I be surprised at Italy´s political crisis? These things used to be so commonplace, before Silvio Berlusconi´s long reign as prime minister. But there is a reason. Maybe I am politically na´ve. But still, I found it shocking that the coalition should be brought into a crisis over an issue of foreign policy, over whether or not Italian troops should join the NATO mission in Afghanistan. To my mind, such issues should be considered immune to political games, should command a sort of bipartisan agreement that the lives of soldiers or of innocent Afghans should not be made vulnerable by domestic political manoeuvring. Yet, not only was it shocking to see the coalition split over this sort of topic, but it was even more shocking to me, a foreigner, to see the centre-right vote down the government over something that they would have supported had they still been in government.

Yes, I am politically na´ve. No doubt this episode represented a payback for previous ignoble deeds by the left. But still, the opposition diminished themselves by this vote, morally and as patriots. Whatever you think of the Iraq invasion (and, I admit, I was in favour of it), the Berlusconi government stood tall and proud as Italians when they sent soldiers to help with the reconstruction. To send more Italians to help alongside Canadians, British and other NATO allies in Afghanistan would also have been a proud, patriotic and statesmanlike act, one that enhanced Italy´s reputation in world affairs. But no. Far better, apparently, to make a parochial political gesture. Far better to damage Italy´s reputation, for the sake of such a gesture.

                Perhaps, though, I am also surprised about the political crisis because on my own recent visit to India, I happened to attend a reception at the Italian ambassador´s residence for the visiting Romano Prodi, and he seemed so relaxed and confident. People often feel relaxed when they are away from home, away from a stressful environment. But his air of relaxation may also just have been because he found himself in a strangely familiar environment. Dr Manmohan Singh might well be called Il Professore by his boss, Sonia Gandhi, and he of course presides over a fragile centre-left coalition, and thus governs with the support of various communist parties, who frustrate his economic reforms. They must have found a lot to talk about.

                No doubt they will have discussed each other´s alternativesŚbeyond the alternative, I mean, of quitting politics and going back to university. Dr Singh´s other options are limited, because India no longer has any truly national parties. He has no other big potential friends. All governments have to be coalitions of small, regional parties. He can switch his alliance to take in some small, local caste-based parties, but only if he is willing to pay a price in terms of favours for that caste, or tribe.

                Romano Prodi´s position is surely better. His coalition is split and fragile. But so is the centre-right. It cannot agree on who should succeed Mr Berlusconi, especially since Mr Berlusconi does not agree that there is a need for a successor at all. The long-held dream of a coalition of the centre should in theory be a practical option, in such circumstances. There is dissent and disagreement on both sides. But one should not be na´ve about that either. Theory and practice are two quite different matters when it comes to politics.

                Having won his confidence vote to re-establish his government, what should Mr Prodi do now? Many have said that he is now wounded, weakened, unable to carry on with any bold policies. And it is true that his left-wingers have tried to show that they are willing to bring down the government, that they are not intimidated by the threat of new elections. Even so, in my view, he should not act as a weak prime minister, should not give in to such bullying. If he does not continue with his programme of reform, modest but useful though it was, what is the point of remaining as prime minister at all? If he cannot do anything, it would then be better to go back to university. Don´t let the left win. Keep on daring, Mr Prodi.


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