The economy grew at a fast clip, leaders of the permanent five of the UN Security Council visited India, despite the German Bakery and Varanasi attack, terrorism, by and large stayed its hand, and though it took a new twist, violence in Kashmir flared, and then died down. Even so it is difficult not to believe that 2010 was an annus horribilis for the country. Inflation steadily eroded the income of the common man, and for six months we have been deluged by a tsunami of corruption-related charges.
It began with the Indian Premier League, moved on to the Commonwealth Games, and finally culminated in what promises to be the mother of all scams—the loss of over one hundred thousand crore rupees in auctioning the 2G spectrum. The result has been that even the image of the incorruptible Prime Minister has been sullied. Even today no one believes any ill of Dr Singh. But it is increasingly difficult to separate his personal probity and integrity from the record of his government.
Clearly 2011 is a make or break year for the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance. What can it do to recover the momentum of governance that it lost in 2009? How does it respond to the insidiously growing perception that it is rotten and corrupt to the core?
There are six things it can do to revitalise itself in the coming year. But my cynical heart says it will probably not move on any of them.
First Announce the creation of a truly autonomous prosecution agency for the country, in the pattern of the Crown Prosecutor’s Office in Great Britain. Given the urgency of the situation—the Congress party has till the budget session to get back on track—the government may consider issuing an ordinance with the promise of passing a comprehensive legislation thereafter.
The idea is not new. In 1998, the Chief Justice of India J S Verma had called for “an impartial agency comprising persons of unimpeachable integrity to perform functions akin to those of the Director of Prosecutions in the UK.” This was in the context of the Jain hawala diary, a scam which the system— babus and politicians of all ilk—were able to bury effectively.
In 2009, the same CBI opposed measures to separate its prosecution and investigation departments on specious grounds, even while the Union Law Ministry suggested that it be done.
Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar convened a meeting to resolve the issue, but little came of it. This proposal has the backing of the Prime Minister, the National Law Commission and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Personnel. It is clearly an idea whose time has come.
Second Announce the termination of the Single Point directive through which mandatory permission is required before prosecution can be launched against a public servant, above the rank of a joint secretary. In some ways this is merely a corollary of the first issue. The Single Point directive was instituted because it was felt that people would pressure public servants by launching fraudulent cases against them.
But the best custodian of everyone’s interests will be the autonomous prosecution agency, and, it alone ought to decide whether or not a public servant can be prosecuted. At present the decision is taken by another babu or a minister, and that has been the nub of the problem.
Third Drop a number of top ministers who are known to be blatantly corrupt. Some of them belong to alliance parties, but at least one of them is a Sanjay Gandhi era Congressman. These ministers have openly looted the country and their activities are spoken of quite openly. No doubt the government has a solid dossier on them. But by its failure to act, it has allowed their activities to tarnish its own image.
Fourth Begin implementation of a deep reform programme to overhaul our policing system based on the eight reports of the police commissions. The reform should stress the need for accountability, independence and protection against political interference. Reforming the police may be a tall order considering the numerous uses that the political class makes of pliant policemen.
But it is also the cornerstone of any dramatic change in the quality of governance in the country. Just how reluctant politicians are to reform the police is borne out by the fact that a letter calling on states to show political will and institute police reforms written in April 1997 by the then Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, failed to get a single response.
Fifth Appoint a Chief of Defence Staff. The failure of the NDA, and then the UPA government to appoint a CDS, who would be a single point military adviser to the government, as well as the core around which a modern and integrated military force can be created, remains a seriously unaddressed gap in our national security management system. The recommendations for the appointment of the position are already in from the NDA period. All that the UPA government needs is to accord it Cabinet approval.
Sixth Do something, besides forming committees and issuing declarations, to transform agriculture and food logistics. Stagnant productivity, rapacious middle-men and government apathy pose a clear present danger to our polity. Besides food inflation that is stealing incomes across the country, is the issue of worsening conditions of the tens of millions who live in the countryside.
Obviously the most important decision is to decide to actually do something. You may have to work at multiple levels—change some laws at the Centre and States, alter some governmental structures, provide finance and so on. The government needs to urgently consolidate the various “missions” — horticulture, oilseeds, pulses and so on—and then energise them.
It also requires a dramatic transformation of our antiquated system of agricultural marketing which is characterised by waste and the rapacious practices of middle-men. Mandis need to be modernised and provided electronic displays and modern communications, some states must be persuaded to change their outdated Product Marketing Committee laws.
In February 2010 the Prime Minister set up a core group along with some ten Chief Ministers, the finance minister, agriculture minister and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. Their recommendations could form the core of the steps that can be taken in 2011.
The country, of course, has a much vaster agenda. But there are three other areas where the country needs to get cracking in 2011—physical infrastructure, health and education. As for physical infrastructure, no one who lives in contemporary India can be blind to the obvious challenge that our shoddy cities, roads and railway system pose. Yet almost every project is beset with delays and shoddy execution and the consequences of bad roads, electricity grids and antiquated railway systems are paid for by every citizen in manifold ways.
Though it disavowed him, the Congress has more of Narasimha Rao’s stamp than they would care to acknowledge. They, too, believe that no action is also a form of action, that if you do nothing, things sort themselves out one way or the other. But the time for such mystical approaches is over, the Opposition has smelt blood and is on the prowl and the people increasingly angry at their situation.
The Congress is a master of triangulation and over-subtle calculation. But this will only lead to continuing policy paralysis. The UPA ship captained by Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi is listing, and 2011 could actually compel them to do something—swim. The alternative is to do nothing, and sink.
This appeared in Mail Today December 31, 2010