Thursday, February 10, 2011

Power & Politics / February 09, 2011/ The New Indian Express

The tragic story of Mr Clean

In 1992, when George Bush Sr thought he’d whizz past the Democrats in the race for the White House thanks to the patriotic vote after the first Gulf War, Bill Clinton checkmated him with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” In 2011, the table has turned on India’s ‘Singh Parivar’— Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and his Sancho Panza, deputy chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwallia — who have for the past two decades managed to grab the pulpit of India’s best economic brains. While India’s economic advance under their stewardship is rather debatable, with India poorer now than in 1991 when they entered the cockpit, what is beyond doubt is Singh and Co’s yawning disconnect with politics.

In 2004, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi looked relieved handing over charge of UPA-I to Manmohan Singh, whose clean image shone like a talisman on the disreputable, geriatric Congress party. After a mere gap of seven years, the party is buried under an avalanche of scams and the Opposition’s fingers are pointed, unfortunately, at none but Manmohan Singh for his alleged acts of omission. Now, those of commission, too. As prime minister, he was expected to lead from the front. Those who have hardly any stake either in India or the Congress are now leading him from behind.

As the Congress party gets pummelled in the media, young Turks are getting restive; their whispers that Manmohan is a liability are getting louder as the old guards continue to assert he is an asset — the obvious reason being, perhaps, that the average age of the UPA-II Cabinet is the highest since Independence.

It’s tragic that someone responsible for creating a “New India’ is losing both credibility and acceptability. Integrity and tolerance were Manmohan’s USPs. Both are evaporating fast. If there was a sandbag — A Raja — for the 2G Spectrum scam, in the S-band spectrum allotment controversy the punches are landing straight on the prime minister’s face. S-band is a special frequency that is scarce and therefore priced high.

It seems Antrix, a subsidiary of the ISRO — which is directly under the prime minister — got into a sweetheart deal with Devas Multimedia, a company owned by a former ISRO scientist for 70 MHz of the S-band spectrum. Now the CAG estimates that if the realised price in the recent auction of 3G Spectrum —`67,719 crore for a mere 15 MHz of frequency — is applied to the S-band that ISRO made a charity of, it would have been Rs 2 lakh-crore; tens of thousand crore rupees more than the 2G Spectrum loot. Together, the total suspected loss to the exchequer is 64.34 per cent of India’s government revenue in 2010-11. Both the BJP and the Left parties have found an excuse heftier than 2G spectrum scam to perhaps, hinder the smooth passage of the 2011-12 budget.

But it is a mystery how Manmohan Singh, reportedly a man with a mission and a leader with clear vision, has become just another average politician struggling to survive in office. Look at the firsts to his credit! He is the first non-Gandhi-family Congress politician to be re-elected to lead the Cabinet twice. He was hailed as the most qualified man to head the government, though it’s not a reflection on the creative repertoire of Jawaharlal Nehru. Now Manmohan seems to have lost all sense of purpose and direction. Last year he made half a dozen forecasts of prices coming down within definite timelines, all of which were proved wrong. In desperation, perhaps, he made a hash of the basic economics he learnt in Amritsar many decades ago by suggesting that the current price rise is due to rising food consumption under his super-efficient rule. It was a harsh joke on the poor to whom none of the government’s expensive welfare programmes — including the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA — had reached, thanks to a kleptocratic government and thuggish middlemen. When pushed to the wall for an inflation remedy, Manmohan replies from behind a sage-like aloofness that he is no astrologer, nor has he a magic wand.

Nobody is blaming him for the rise in the prices of volatile items like oil (what can he do if Egypt begins to boil, driving up the price of Brent crude?). But the headline inflation rate is an aggregate, also underpinned by a core inflation rate of non-food manufactured items, which too ran high at 5.3 per cent in last December. To achieve a headline inflation rate of 5 to 6 per cent, the core inflation rate must not exceed 3 to 4 per cent. Without alternately blaming Sharad Pawar and late winter rains, can the prime minister take a second look at his own policy and seek answers to nagging questions like why reforms are stuck at the 2004 level?

Why are the fingers of a government that earns only $129.8 billion in revenue so itchy that it splurges $214.6 billion? If India under Manmohan Singh is such a wonderful story that the Government must spend crores of rupees to tell it at Davos, why did it receive only $131.1 billion in FDI: 23rd among all countries? Why is India rated 134th among 168 countries in terms of the ‘ease of doing business?’ All these factors relate to India’s supply constraints leading to high inflation. The demand side explanation that the prime minister is offering —“Indians are eating more”— only suits his convenience. Thirty-seven per cent of Indians live below the poverty line. If they are eating “cake” instead of “bread” they should be somersaulting overnight above the poverty line.

Manmohan has always been circumspect on corruption, his clean image being his passport to South Block in 2004. Of late, however, he has been making his musings on the subject heard through chosen oracles like Montek and others drafted from the corporate sector into the government. They declare that the state has a right to distribute the country’s resources, including wireless spectrum, any which way it liked: through auctions to raise funds; or by the first-come-first-served route if the purpose is to enlarge the market. Montek aired this view first in a television interview on the CAG calculation that the free distribution of 2G frequency has cost the state Rs 176,000 crore. The CAG was wrong, he said, as the purpose of the spectrum distribution was not to enrich the state’s coffers. I have no doubt that the Manmohan Singh administration will spin the same yarn; of the state enjoying the right to throw away spectrum to defend itself on the Rs 200,000-crore ISRO S-band scam. It is a poor defence as it creates room for crony capitalism, as the “first-to-come” may also be the largest bribe givers to politicians.

The prime minister has failed to make the state look above suspicion as an auctioneer — be it of natural gas, coal mines, wireless frequency, land to build houses for war widows or even of the right to sponsor events in an international games. Nothing seems to go well in Manmohan Singh’s hands — not even appointing the CVC, whose job is to clean the Augean stables. The time has come for the prime minister to either assert his authority or suffer a massive erosion of both image and credibility. It is not difficult to see whom Sonia Gandhi meant when she lamented that there was no retirement age for politicians.

1 comment:

BK Chowla, said...

I dont agree with you that he is not to be blamed. He MUST accept full responsibility for the total mess the country is in.

What has Montek contributed to India in last 6 yrs, except for interviews to India media in Devos?

Is this what we voted MMS for?Do you blame those who say that he is a liability now.
What makes most of wonder--WHY IS HE NOT QUITTING WITH RESPECT