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A government in flux

Publication Date : 20-09-2012

 

If reforms is the word the Indian government must use, the urgency is difficult to understand considering the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II had been toying with the ideas for the past three-four years.

Could it be that the government wants to deflect attention from a series of scams, the latest being the coal block allotments?

I realise that I am not a person whom the Congress will listen to. But should it choose to, I would advise the party to go down fighting. At present, even if it survives, it will be merely clinging to the chair and not really governing.

The crisis in the party is nothing new. For the past three-four years, it has been discussing and debating whether to adopt reforms or not. The fear of losing power held the party back from doing anything drastic. So much so that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost considerable goodwill.

True, the party does not have the numbers. With the Trinamul Congress withdrawing 19 Lok Sabha (Lower House) members, the coalition commands only 254 in a 536-member House. So, for the Congress, there is the temptation to join hands with either the Samajwadi Party that has 22 members or with the Bahujan Samaj Party that has 21 MPS in order to muster a majority.

Yet, the Congress knows the price it will have to pay should either of the two parties lend it support. Both leaders are involved in too many cases related to corruption and acquisition of wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is investigating.

Although Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati has kept her counsel, Mulayam Singh Yadav has been insisting that the Congress is byword for corruption as if he has the qualifications to make such an observation. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with 18 members is sniping at the Congress but is probably just going through the motions, it is otherwise loyal to the Congress.

The real problem is with the two leaders--Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati. Even if the Congress were to win either of the two or both over, what image would the already-tainted party acquire? It is not an easy choice between compromise and power. But if the Congress wants to sincerely salvage its reputation, it cannot risk another trust vote. At that time, Mulayam Singh Yadav had been brought around with a blank cheque.

The question that confronts the government is the price of diesel that even after being raised will continue to be subsidised by the government. The second moot point and more important, is allowing FDI in multi-brand retail.

Maybe, opening up retail trade to foreign giants will help Indians confront the capricious shopkeepers, especially those dealing in food products. True, not all of the country’s estimated 500 million retailers are dishonest. But presuming all of them are alike, the economic steps the Prime Minister has taken will lead us to uncharted territory without any political consensus to guide us. However, I do not understand why the word reform is being used when the government’s initiatives are, in fact, retrograde? In a polarised country, it is better to avoid terminology that divides and heightens tension.

If reforms is the word the government must use, the urgency is difficult to understand considering the UPA II had been toying with the ideas for the past three-four years. Why did the Manmohan Singh government pick September 2012 as the most opportune time and not 2008 or even 2004 when it had come to power? Importantly, why now when it is on the last leg of its second term? The general election is due in early 2014. This does not give the government enough time to devote the rest of its term to remedying the situation.

Could it be that the government wanted to deflect attention from a series of scams, the latest being the coal block allotments? I would like more transparency in governance than so-called reforms. There is little doubt that the government will survive the test of a majority in the Lok Sabha if it comes to that (273 in a 536-member House). There are smaller parties that can be cajoled and purchased to side with the ruling coalition.

Yet, the numbers will have no meaning if there is no accountability. I have not seen many heads rolling, save a couple, when it is an open secret that practically all the ministers are in league with bureaucrats in making money on the quiet. Many scams are yet to see the light of the day. Thanks to the media, some have been exposed. Whenever another scam comes to the fore, the government invariably begins its defence with the phrase “no loss to the exchequer.”

The Supreme Court ensured that the 2G spectrum scam was probed thoroughly. Steps were hurriedly taken to close the door but by that time, the horse had bolted.

The problem with the Manmohan Singh government is that it lacks decisiveness something that had plagued the Jawaharlal Nehru government as well. In Nehru’s time, India was accused of favouring soft options. Now it is said that there is a policy paralysis in India. The fact is that the doubt about ourselves substitutes our firm resolve to take policy decisions.

Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal who wrote Asian Drama said India was a “soft state” because it could not impose obligations and sought political compromises. This is as much true today as it had been when we had ushered in the First Five Year Plan in 1955.

Manmohan Singh’s reforms, which began 1990, have shown that a mixed economy or socialistic pattern does not work because of many reasons such as traditional rigidities, religious narrowness and drastic steps for an egalitarian society. I wish he had practised what he preaches about inclusive development. Yet corruption on the one hand and the lack of decisiveness on the other has made open economy a serious option. I may stick to my left-of-centre belief but pragmatism is what counts in India. We may not like foreign-grafted economic measures. But they seem to work.

The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator.

 

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