Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pills that won't cure the government's ills

When the body, as much as the body politic, is ill, it sometimes needs to take a bitter medicine. With apologies to those who believe in alternative medicine, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has, in the anodyne reshuffle he has conducted,  taken recourse to passing out those little sweet pills that homeopaths are known to dish out. They can, at best, be a placebo, but they are unlikely to cure the disease. 
Who can deny the seriousness of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance’s illness? There is something epic in the hubris that the party displayed in the face of repeated instances of malfeasance and corruption that came to light in the last two years. In the short span of one year from its excellent showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it was reduced to a rudderless hulk that has been floating in the political seas, open to pot-shots from everyone— enemies, allies and even its own party members. Just yesterday, the Prime Minister had the ignominy of being talked back to by a junior minister whom he had asked to proceed to the site of Sunday’s railway accident. And, not surprisingly, that minister was not dropped in Tuesday’s reshuffle.
The Prime Minister missed his big opportunity when he did not act against Suresh Kalmadi and his coterie in the wake of the rumblings on the Commonwealth Games preparations.
Just how wrong the PM and Sonia Gandhi’s political judgment was is evident from the fact that Mr Kalmadi has been sitting in jail for months now. Even as the CWG issue died down, the government was hit by an even bigger tsunami— the 2G spectrum scam. Insiders knew of its existence two years earlier, and it is unpardonable that the government either did not know about it, or, more likely refused to act on the charges. It took a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General to set the law and order machinery rolling.
And once again we see just how poorly the Singh-Sonia duo misjudged the issue—the main accused, former telecom minister A Raja and no less a person than the daughter of a close ally of the UPA, Kanimozhi, are both in jail. In March, Wikileaks raised the ghost of the original scandal—the alleged bribery that enabled the first UPA government headed by Singh to win a crucial trust vote linked with the Indo-US nuclear deal. A US diplomat reported home in a cable that was leaked that he had seen chests of cash that a senior Congress leader said were being used for the purpose.

The other scandals—the Sukhna land scam, the Adarsh housing scam and the loan-bribery scam affecting LIC Housing Finance and several banks—cannot be directly attributed to the UPA, but they speak of the breakdown of governance in the country. On Tuesday, Mail Today carried an investigative report by Headlines Today revealing how the cancer of corruption has spread to the very constituent cells of the country— government functionaries demanding bribes from people at the very bottom of the social and economic pyramid in the country in Bundelkhand.
When Singh began his second term as the Prime Minister, there were expectations that freed from the barracking tactics of the Left, the government would move swiftly to push a series of reforms that were needed at the infrastructural level to unleash the Indian economy. UPA I had, to its credit, managed the economic crisis of 2008 well and there was every reason to believe that it would do what was promised. But early on, within a matter of months the government appeared to have lost its way, and it never really found it again.
This is the reason why a great deal was set by Tuesday’s reshuffle. From February onwards, when the government had the ignominy of its former minister A Raja being carted off to jail, Dr Singh put out word that once the budget session was over, he would take drastic steps to overhaul his government and make a new beginning. It did not take a genius to realise that the government was in serious need of a makeover. The session got over in May and then we had June and finally in mid-July the reshuffle and in the end it has come to what can, at best, be called a re-jig of the middle levels of the government. Ministers, some of them very senior, who are known to be corrupt remain within the government, others who have proved to be incompetent and actually injurious to the UPA II, too, flourish.
The reshuffle has seen some three or four people associated with Rahul Gandhi enter the Union Council of Ministers. This is too little and too late. Given the dire straits the UPA is in, the time has come for Mr Gandhi to play a far more assertive hand. The few acolytes he has in government, all but Jairam Ramesh having Minister of State rank, are unlikely to make any significant difference to the quality of the government. On the other hand, they risk being tainted by association with a government that does not work. 
The one big problem that the UPA confronts is that it is the government of a party which, even more desperately than the government, needs a makeover. The governmental system we have inherited from the British has always put politics and politicians in the leadership role of the system. More so than the United States where Cabinet members can be experts and non-politicians, the Westminster system demands a government where ministers are active politicians who are accountable in real terms in the House of Commons, with the Prime Minister himself answering questions from parliamentarians once a week during the period that the house is in session. In the case of the UPA, the Prime Minister himself and his four principal ministers are political light-weights. They may, like the PM, be experts in their subjects, but the Westminster system demands that they be politically savvy, rather than expert.
At the end of the day, of course, it is
Dr Singh and Ms Gandhi’s prerogative to shape their government the way they desire. No doubt they have consulted widely and have had intense discussions before the exercise was undertaken. For reasons best known to them, a minimalist procedure was undertaken. Perhaps they feared that too much energy may bring the ramshackle structure down. Or they were not confident that the UPA would be able to withstand a burst of acceleration.
Remarkably, the prime minister has underscored the status quoist nature of Tuesday’s exercise by emphasising that this is likely to be the last reshuffle of his government whose term ends some two years from now. This is either a brave attempt to impart stability to a shaky vehicle, or yet another manifestation of the hubris that the Congress party seems to be so assiduous in courting.
Mail Today July 13, 2011

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