Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be thanked for deciding to speak to the nation today through TV journalists. It is important to hear from him his take on governance. We were hearing about it earlier from assorted busybodies. Like Union home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram who, in a recent interview to an American daily, sought to deflect the charge that the UPA-2 government was showing “governance deficit.” The clever lawyer that he is, he said that there could be an “ethical deficit” instead. Significantly, the newspaper on whose columns Chidambaram did this philosophical quibbling ran an article a few weeks later in which some spirited speculation was made that he was indeed waiting in the wings, and that too much ahead of others, to replace Manmohan Singh as prime minister — at the end of UPA-2’s term in 2014. That adds weight to his comment.
However, it is hard to digest the hint that if only Manmohan Singh could curb the “ethical deficit”, shorthand for the scams, the government, in which Chidambaram could have made the difference, would have got itself covered in glory. That’s a blinkered view, at best.
Scams do not erupt suddenly unless there is a general lack of direction. And fecklessness. That’s what plagues the UPA-2. In a nation with more than half the population under 25 years, the 34-strong Cabinet (excluding Cabinet-status holders Montek Singh Ahluwallia and Nandan Nilekani and other corporate paratroopers) has only three under-50 members: Kumari Selja (48), Dayanidhi Maran (44), and G K Vasan (46). And it is more like a Soviet politburo than the Cabinet of a democratic coalition. Its members are wheeled in and out of departments as if at the command of some invisible “Great Helmsman.” Nobody knows why Kapil Sibal, who acted for a few months like having the most original ideas after Lord Macaulay on education in India, was suddenly moved to the chair made vacant by the exit of controversial A Raja, at telecom, arguably one of India’s most rogue-infested ministries. If Kamal Nath had to leave the roads ministry due to non-performance, how will he benefit his new home, the urban development ministry, whose job is to save the country’s creaking cities? If Praful Patel got himself labelled in the civil aviation ministry as “minister for Private Airways” how will his successor Vyalar Ravi, a typical statist given to central planning model, who has already earned the sobriquet “minister for Air India,” do any better? If Murli Deora hobnobbed with the Big Oil as petroleum minister, will he not walk through another corporate door as corporate affairs minister? Besides, Jaipal Reddy, who is known to love nothing more than the microphone, may not be the ideal leader of the petroleum ministry, which calls for tightrope walking between consumer interest and that of producers.
A Cabinet superimposed on the government cannot but be muddleheaded. It is unable to explain the current inflation, which food economist Ashok Gulati has described as the “worst form of taxation on the poorest of the poor.” But Chidambaram is unfazed. “Any serious student of economics would say that, for the most part, this (high inflation) is demand driven”, he has said in the interview. He was echoing what the prime minister recently told the state chief secretaries, that food prices are soaring because Indians are eating more.
The argument is specious because the government itself released data in 2009 showing 37 per cent of the people below poverty line. The calculation was obviously a joke, as the Planning Commission had calculated the poverty rate only two years earlier at 27.4 per cent.
But the 2009 figure was justified on the ground that its basis was different, or, in other words, the poverty line had been redrawn. A bit of dithering on the poverty number may be explained as a smokescreen to justify a bunch of hopelessly inefficient welfare programmes, including the unaudited MGNREGA. It was of the more-leftist UPA-1 vintage. But now the UPA leaders are no longer on the same page. The welfare programmes, they are saying, have already made Indians rich. In UPA’s India, things really happen fast. In the process, however, about 10 per cent of the population — some 120 million people representing the gap between the 2007 and 2009 poverty counts — are missing.
The government is missing the plot even on its big-ticket welfare projects. Take for example the one to universalise primary education, begun by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, on which the UPA government has applied a new coat of paint and enacted a new law giving Right to Education (RTE) to all children between 6 and 14 years of age. It has no doubt raised enrolment, but that’s where the story ends. NGO surveys show that over 60 per cent of the students are incapable of simple divisions and over a half of the 10-year-olds could not read to the ability expected of six-year-olds. Primary dropout rate at 40 per cent is higher than Bangladesh, a country poorer than India. The pity is, of those students who enrol themselves in secondary schools, as many as 48 per cent drop out during the journey from the ninth standard to twelfth. It shows how unattainable is the promised “right” to education.
That brings us to UPA’s another shining project, the Right to Food Bill. The new buzz is to do away with the corruption-ridden Public Distribution System and issue food stamps, much like it was done in Europe ravaged by the Second World War. That enables the coupon holder to buy his quota of food from the market at subsidised price, with the trader free to cash out the coupon later. It will no doubt let the food security system reach every deserving citizen, which is not the case with the ration shops now. But is Indian agriculture equipped to meet the consequent spike in demand? Not quite. On an index of 100 in 1993-94, agricultural production in India has gone up to only 119.2 in 2009-10. If population was identically indexed, it would probably have reached 135. That’s a rough measure of rising starvation. Instead of planning a second Green Revolution, the government is writing a new law. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has remained too busy with management of cricket all the while to give it a thought.
And so every minister has some preoccupation other than the drab job of governance. Railway minister Mamata Banerjee has the task ordained probably by the goddess next to her house in Kolkata’s Kalighat to rout the CPI(M) in the next Assembly poll. What does it matter to her if the railways budget suddenly goes in the red? And why should Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, who enjoys being adored in his Congress party for his Confucian wisdom, be hassled by the rising prices? He has on his hand the more important task of giving his son a Congress ticket for the West Bengal Assembly poll.
The real deficit that is afflicting the government is of direction. It is a government on drift. The ‘1991 reformers’ — Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwallia, Pranabda — are tired but not retired. It may have so far escaped the notice of voters, but the stock market is unforgiving. It is struggling to claw upward from where it was on the last day of 2009, after losing a fifth of its value in the past five weeks. Isn’t it confidence deficit, Mr Chidambaram?