Friday, July 1, 2011

Government running out of steam- Unmask the purdah and face the Nation

The Statesman, 01 July 2011, Kuldip Nayar. A government which seems to have run out of steam cannot prove its dynamism with the Prime Minister briefing some editors. He should come out of purdah more often and face the nation
Governments run out of steam after traversing some distance. It happens all over the world because the enthusiasm with which they start peters out, the promises which they make become remote and the schemes which they take up lack push. This is the most charitable explanation for the Manmohan Singh government’s non-performance. It has no sense of direction. How can it direct the nation? This comes out clearly as the government is midway to its five-year tenure.
Yet, it does not realise how strong is the groundswell of public opinion against it. The agitation spearheaded by Mr Anna Hazare gave evidence of that. People came out in the open in his support throughout the country. The government assessed the mood at that time correctly and sat with the representatives of civil society to draft the Lokpal Bill. The issue is corruption and the government has to attend to it.
By reshuffling the Cabinet, people’s anger is not going to go away unless they see some concrete steps to eliminate corruption. The battered government has to come up with an answer to explain why the system does not function. The government’s ham-handedness can be judged by the way even the finance minister’s office in the secure North Block was broken in to bug it and chewing gum was left behind to mock at the security apparatus.
By changing portfolios, the Prime Minister would not necessarily improve the efficiency of government departments or quicken the pace of decisions. And what do you do about integrity? Practically all ministers of Dr Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are mixed up with one magnet in the corporate sector or the other. Ineptness has, in fact, become the hallmark of this government.
Even if one were to leave out corruption, which has spread its tentacles the maximum since Independence, one would find numerous examples of the administration overrun by sloth. Maybe, there is a purpose behind it, probably to cover up the fallout of an unholy alliance between ministers and bureaucrats. The government seems to live under the illusion that the subsidies and pro-poor yojanas (plans) keep the aam aadmi happy. Half of the allocation does not reach him and what does tends to make most among them indolent and hopelessly dependent. Punjab and Haryana are two examples where the agriculture labourer prefers to draw a dole than work.
What depresses me is the Prime Minister’s belief that nothing is wrong with the government and that its image has been damaged by the media and the judiciary ~ in that order. He should realise that if that has happened it is a consequence, not the cause. The cause is the series of scams which would have remained unexposed if journalists had not brought them to the fore and judges had not pulled up the administration. Dr Singh goes by what the bureaucrats tell him or his senior ministers suggest. They are cut off from the public and do not know about its thinks. Having been a bureaucrat all his life, Dr Singh should have known how to make the administration function quickly and be responsive.
My feeling is that time is running out. The Prime Minister does not realise that he has no leeway and must act now if he does not want the situation to go out of hand. He should compare his last tenure with the current one. His earlier stint suggested that he had thought over the steps he had taken. Despite the pressure of coalition partners, he had his way. True, he performance didn’t exactly meet expectations, but the Prime Minister did not seem as out of depth as he seems today.
In his current tenure, he does not seem to get anything right. Understandably, he feels uncertain because he has to manage some 24 parties and does not have the chunk of 60-odd members from the Left to depend on (they themselves have been reduced to 16). But coalition dharma does not mean that he should be passive about the corruption that his allies are indulging in. The correspondence between him and former telecommunication minister Mr A Raja shows that he had known about what the DMK members in the Union Cabinet were up to but still he chose not do anything about it. Dr Singh should have at least warned DMK chief Mr K Karunanidhi instead of placating him. True, Congress president Mrs Sonia Gandhi dictates the terms and she was not willing to disturb the applecart at the beginning of the second term.
The issue of price rise is a serious one. There must be something wrong something to make inflation climb up with impunity. By saying that inflation is “causing worry,” the government does not mollify the angry nation. I get the impression that the rulers have no idea of coping with ever-increasing prices. “We have no magic wand,” is the stock reply when pressed to explain why prices are inordinately high. Why did the government let the situation reach such a pass in the first instance? No economist is required to tell the government that it is a question of demand and supply. What is required is productivity. Probably, it has referred the matter to the Planning Commission which will tell us in good time what steps to take. By that time inflation would have risen still further.
Has the government ever tried to cut its expenditure? I do not hear the word austerity in official circles any longer. Almost 75 per cent of petrol and diesel available in this country is utilised by vehicles of government and the public sector undertakings at the Centre and in the states. Why doesn’t the government reduce the cavalcade of cars and security personnel accompanying a minister or a VIP? I thought BJP leader Mr LK Advani would have been sensitive enough to voluntarily cut the number of cars and security men when he travels at least within New Delhi, a protected area. In fact, all Opposition leaders in the country should unilaterally surrender the vehicles that follow them around save the one which carries the security personnel. This may be one way to shame the government.
The Prime Minister and the Congress president are now engaged in an exercise to refurbish the image of the government. They should recall how Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri stressed on curtailing government expenditure. Shastri even gave a call for “miss a meal” since food was in short supply. That leadership spirit is lacking.
Concrete steps are required to convince people that the government is serious about eliminating corruption as well as avoiding wasteful expenditure. A government which seems to have run out of steam cannot prove its dynamism with the Prime Minister briefing some editors. He should come out of purdah more often and face the nation.
The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator
Out of steam- Between the Lines ~ Kuldip Nayar

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