Monday, September 24, 2012

No-we-Can't ... Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard/September 23, 2012

No-we-can’t (grow money on trees) Manmohan tune won't work

Crisis creates leaders. But there are few leaders who create crises and land themselves in it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has acquired the unique distinction of creating many a crisis. When all was going well for the ruling party, his government was caught first in the Coalgate mess, and later in the wrongly timed tornado of economic reforms. Last week, he spoke from the heart about his agonising responsibility as the Prime Minister for about 20 minutes. Since it was his first address to the nation since 2009 (barring the routine Independence Day speech), the whole country was glued to TV screens. Manmohan’s admirers and global promoters were hoping he would reassert and rediscover himself. They expected him to say: “Yes, we can, we have and we shall deliver.” But when he finished his speech, more questions were raised about his political authority and future vision for change. His resolve to go down fighting was conspicuous by its absence. His tendency to take risks, however, was quite visible. Quite predictably, he won bouquets from Corporate India—his natural constituency—but brickbats from the alienated political constituency of middle and lower middle class India. He was expected to lead with prime ministerial elan. Instead, he ended up parroting the same palliatives and prescriptions which were earlier being trotted out by his erudite and articulate ministerial colleagues.

Manmohan’s economics was right but his equations were wrong. Since he spoke in Hindi, his speech was meant to score a political point. He justified the massive rise in diesel prices because “money doesn’t grow on trees”—a phrase normally used by mediocre politicians. Eyebrows were raised because public expenditure has grown due to the expansion of the government, massive concessions to India Inc, the allotment of natural resources to the private sector, runaway prices and the government’s reluctance to tax the rich and mighty. Manmohan’s political rivals have challenged his contention that diesel prices were raised to prevent users of luxury vehicles from taking advantage of the subsidy. They assert that the Prime Minister conveniently forgot that diesel is the major fuel for farmers to run water pumps, tractors and even power. Over 90 per cent of it is consumed by rural India, the public transport system and power generators so that smaller towns and villages can survive. In spite of the UPA regime adding a record 50,000 MW power generation capacity, more than three-fourths of India gets power for less than eight hours per day. Most of these moribund power plants are sick testimonies to the failure of the leadership to ensure proper coal and gas linkages for generation of electricity. As a result, banks have accumulated huge, dubious loans and the nation has been deprived of power, which could have been a source of massive income and employment for the country.

But the beauty of statistical narration is that it can tell two contradictory stories at the same time. Being an economist, the Prime Minister used numbers to numb his opponents. But they recovered to throw another set of figures back to prove his economics irrelevant. It was clear from the confrontationist political discourse that the Prime Minister and his advisers haven’t learnt the art of creating a consensus even on good economics. The government hasn’t treated its allies with the respect they deserve. The Trinamool Congress made it clear that it wasn’t consulted on any of the latest policy issues. The Coordination Committee was revived under pressure from Sharad Pawar to resolve contentious matters. Being a loner, the Prime Minister hardly meets political leaders—from other parties or his own—to discuss and get feedback on various subjects. The usual convention of meeting MPs in groups during Parliament sessions has become a rarity. Some senior Congress leaders feel that Manmohan could have taken the initiative to open a dialogue with all the stakeholders and convince them of his roadmap for economic recovery. He could have called meetings of all the chief ministers, leaders of all political parties and even prominent policy-makers to explain his compulsions. Such an exercise would have given powerful ammunition to be used against his opponents.

Unfortunately, even after more than eight years in office, the Prime Minister hasn’t evolved into a consensus builder, which is an essential condition to successfully lead a coalition government. With his hard stand on questionable reforms, not only has he lost an ally, it has also led to another round of deal-makings and concessions to “win over new friends”. The Congress can’t retain power until 2014 by following Manmohan’s economic agenda and retaining its allies at the same time. To ensure a semblance of stability, the party will have to compromise on policies or face the elections earlier. It is no longer in a position to have its cake and eat it, and that too alone.; Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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