It would be disrespect to physics verging on blasphemy, in the wake of CERN’s success with the god particle, to view time as anything but a continuum with space, which is affected by mass. Shorn of the complexity of the general theory of relativity, what this means is quite simple: take what Time says with a pinch of context and weigh it against available evidence, instead of treating it as the absolute truth.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an underachiever, says Time on its cover. “….(I)nvestors at home and abroad are beginning to get cold feet. Voters too are losing confidence, as rising inflation and a litany of scandals chip away at the government’s credibility,” says the magazine. Further, “in the past three years, the calm confidence he (Singh) once radiated has been absent.
He seems unable to control his ministers and — his new, temporary portfolio at the Finance Ministry notwithstanding — unwilling to stick his neck out on reforms that will continue the process of liberalisation he helped start.” Time deplores that “laws that could help create growth and jobs are stuck in Parliament, sparking concerns that politicians have lost the plot in their focus on shorter-term, populist measures that will win votes.”
Indeed, growth has lost momentum and investors are not rushing in where angels still tread, albeit warily, funding an ever-increasing number of start-ups. The ruling Congress party has fared badly in assembly elections and reports of many scandals have, indeed, soured the public mood. Parliament does not make many useful laws. But if ruling party politicians are indeed focusing on populist measures that will win votes, there are few votes secured in the assembly elections in support of this thesis.
As for reforms that will continue the process of liberalisation, some of them depend not on Manmohan Singh sticking his neck out but on Parliament passing laws and the state governments supporting them. Take the proposed move to a goods and services tax. The transition to a value added tax had been something that Manmohan Singh has proposed as Narasimha Rao’s finance minister. Its implementation was worked out by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, which surrendered to the fears of its trader support base and left actual implementation of the tax in the states to the successor UPA in its first term (2004-09).
To move ahead to the next stage of a harmonised system of central and state level taxes on the value added in both goods and services, the Constitution needs to be amended. For that, two-thirds of both Houses of Parliament must pass the amendment bill and at least one-half of India’s states must pass resolutions supporting it. The UPA does not have a majority in the Upper House of Parliament. The Congress rules in only one-third India’s states. The main Opposition, the BJP, has taken a political decision to oppose GST. However much Dr Singh might crane his neck, the BJP will not allow GST to come about.
This applies to other reforms that call for legislation. A raft of bills stay stuck in Parliament, to expand and enhance education, to create a regulator for pensions, to modernise the law that governs companies, to create a framework for freeing up land for industry and to bring transparency and competition to the murky world of mining, which remains the single largest area of organised loot in India.
But the ruling coalition not having a majority in the Upper House or among the states is not the only structural limitation that the government leadership faces. The composition of the coalition is itself a huge drag. The ruling coalition’s numbers include those of the Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, whose chief claim to fame is driving the Tatas’s Nano factory out of West Bengal, apart from ending 35 years of Left Front rule. She represents the lowest common denominator above which reform cannot float without splitting the coalition. In UPA-1, the Left played a similar role.
But what has the UPA government achieved, within these constraints? The biggest achievement has been halting the drift towards national schism that began with the Sangh Parivar’s campaign to demolish the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, accelerated with the NDA’s rise to power and resultant state patronage of communal killings in Gujarat in 2002, and produced indigenous terror. Many people do not appreciate that the culmination of such growing alienation of a 15% minority can only be civil war (those in doubt, please check with the Sri Lankans)
The UPA has decrimnalised the existence of tribal people, an 8% minority whose very life had been converted into crime by colonial forest laws that deemed them trespassers on state land and held their livelihood, of collecting forest produce, to be theft. The Forest Rights Act redeems them from statutory victimisation, which had helped the Maoists make deep inroads into tribal areas.
The Human Development Report released by the Planning Commission shows that all major social groups are converging towards the mainstream, in terms of development indicators, save the tribes. State policy and practice vis-a-vis tribal people are yet to be fully informed by the new law, true, particularly in Chhattisgarh, where the police give tribal people a very raw deal.
The Right to Information Act is another achievement of the UPA government, which empowers the citizens to hold the state to account.
In the teeth of wholly opportunistic opposition from the BJP, Manmohan Singh staked the survival of his government to complete the Indo-US nuclear deal, leading to India’s quasi-membership of the nuclear suppliers’ group and release from assorted bans on accessing sensitive dual-use technology. India has been modernising its armed forces at an unprecedented rate, acquiring the dubious distinction of becoming the largest arms importer. India and Dr Singh are notable actors in international gatherings such as the G20.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme redistributes some of the income generated by the globalising sections of Indians to some of the most deprived. Of course, it is implemented properly only in a few states, but overall, even the leakage of funds for the scheme take place at levels of the foodchain closest to the gound and have contributed to the desired goal of transferring income to the poorer sections of society.
Aided by a period of global boom, India registered the fastest rate of growth of per capita income under the UPA, poverty fell at an unprcedented 1.5% a year, school enrolment went up, health schemes proliferated, polio was vanquished, more women give birth in hospitals than ever before and urbanisation gained pace, changing lifestyles, consumption patterns and aspirations for the better. A massive centrally funded urban renewal scheme has changed the face of many towns across India. Telecom spread and grew ever more affordable, thanks to the UPA’s policy of issuing fresh licences, intensifying competition while keeping the entry costs low.
A new Bharat Broadband Corporation is laying optical fiber across the country to connect 250,000 panchayats in two and a half years. The Unique Identity Project is underway to transform financial inclusion and disbursal of transfer payments to the poor. Addition of fresh power generation capacity today is more than twice the level attained five years ago. Rural electrification is delayed but underway. The ground is being prepared for a huge surge in rural production and growth of agro-processing industry, with rural power supply and ubiquitous broadband.
But what of corruption? Hasn’t the UPA been the most corrupt government in India’s history? The impression essentially rests on the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report that the issuance of 2G telecom licences lost the exchequer Rs 176,000 crore. This is an ill-informed and wholly erroneous estimate based on the assumption that the goal of telecom policy should be to maximise revenue from selling spectrum, whereas the goal of policy has been to maximise economic gain through the spread of telecom, in which revenue will accrue to the government not as telecom revenue but as tax revenues from a faster growing economy.
Of course there has been and is massive corruption under the UPA. But corruption is not the UPA’s monopoly. All of Indian politics funds itself through the proceeds of corruption: loot of the exchequer, sale of patronage and plain extortion. The BJP’s Madhya Pradesh chief minister had the grace to admit that all politics is run on black money. Its Karnataka unit is in the mess in which it is not because of corruption in the UPA.
Which brings us to Manmohan Singh’s failings. Today, the civil society campaign against corruption finds great resonance among large sections of society, thanks to the success of economic reforms. Large sections have prospered without any state patronage and resent some cronies flourishing because of privileged treatment. The time is ripe to clamp down on corruption.
That means expanding and reforming the criminal justice system enormously, to ensure that no case takes more than a couple of years to be disposed of beyond final appeal. It means, even more crucially, reform of political spending to make every penny spent by any politician and party on any activity accountable as to the source of funding. The UPA government and the Congress have made no attempt to initiate such key reforms.
A culture of subsidies holds the government in thrall and depresses investment, growth and the pace of poverty reduction. There is no will to tackle this. Removal of state monopoly over coal and introduction of competition and transparency in mining remain blocked, thanks to vested interests within the UPA itself. Manmohan Singh has done little in this regard.
True, Manmohan Singh enjoys delegated, rather than direct, political authority. But he has never really tested the limits of his delegated authority, preferring to avoid confrontation and diffuse decisionmaking across committees. If he cannot do what he wants to do, why should he continue? Many members of the chattering class dismiss his personal integrity on the ground that he compromises himself by presiding over others in the government and the party indulging in corruption, instead of honourably quitting as PM.
This, unfortunately, is a self-centred way of looking at politics. For the Congress party and for all those who think India should stay a secular democracy, it was imperative that the first coalition led by the Congress at the Centre should complete its full term. That objective would have been derailed if Manmohan Singh had chosen to pursue personal glory and quit midway. Similar considerations continue to hold even today. So he continues to soldier on, weathering steady criticism of being weak, Sonia’s puppet, etc. For this fortitude and for what has been achieved within the constraints of the polity, he deserves to be dubbed a superachiever.