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India shining, govt dozing
T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan | July 28, 2007
Have you noticed something? The government has nodded off.
Policy debates, say, in economics, which matters more than foreign policy, have all but ceased. Except for the angry fuss around the rural employment guarantee programme two years ago, no one talks very much about anything relating to economic policy.
True, there is the odd quibble about the pace of this or the details of that. But no one, not even those darling pussycats, the Communists, who seem to have gone into quietus, is getting really anxious and jumpy any more about anything on the economic side.
This is the UPA Effect, because this coalition is the greatest pacifier ever, led by a man who can soothe frayed nerves as no one else can.
The technique is simple. You don't like something? There there, says the government, we will not do it, calm down, go and see a movie or something. When you come back you will find nothing has changed, promise.
Thus: Let's cut subsidies. No? OK. Let's privatise. No? OK. Give market access to someone other than you-know-who. No? OK. Reduce the EPF rate. No? OK. Do something about participatory notes. No? OK. Power sector reform? No? OK. Don't want us to keep saying OK to every no? OK.
And so it goes on. If even three ordinary people (let alone ministers) don't like something and shout their protest loudly enough, the idea is dropped. Nothing moves forward so as the world moves ahead, we get left behind.
This approach to consensual governance has had three effects, at the very least. First, the undeserving continue to get what they want. You can apply this test yourself and make a list.
Second, conversely, the deserving are being denied what they need. It doesn't matter which group. If you are deserving of something, you won't get it. Go on, make a list and see.
And, third, as a result, the majority is getting mighty peeved with a government that does absolutely nothing at all, good or bad. Indeed, this must be the only government--if one can dignify it by that name--of this kind in the world. It just floats along smilingly.
What is truly extraordinary about this is that there is virtually no opposition. The BJP is knee-deep in its troubles, rather as the Congress was during 1996-2001. Its allies, even the Shiv Sena, are behaving like drugged zombies, stumbling around and tripping all the time. As far as the government is concerned, it is like an India-Holland cricket match.
But just as when our bowlers succeed, our batsmen fail and vice versa, it is the UPA's own ministers who stymie things. And when they all agree, it is the noble comrades who stick their oars in.
A great deal, I can hear the PMO protest, has happened on the foreign policy side. Talks with Pakistan are making progress. The nuclear deal is almost through (although heaven knows what rights India has agreed to give up). Relations with China are good. East Asia is in the pocket. Russia has always been a pal. EU is ok. Etc.
True. You can't deny any of this. But I have never heard of these things doing very much for anyone, the poor or the middle class or even the rich. These things don't bring down the price of fish, or raise incomes, or put more water in the tanks and canals, or create more schools and hospitals, and so on.
This foreign policy-centric approach has been justified by the spinners as follows. "The PM decided long ago that, given the compulsions of coalition, economic and governance reform was impossible. So he decided to focus on what he can do--foreign policy."
In short, this government refuses to engage seriously with the politically difficult problems. It has, quite simply, abdicated. It half-heartedly pokes and prods at a problem once in a while, but the moment someone growls, it backs off. What a way to govern!
As for the success in foreign policy, there is a structural explanation for it. In India, external relations are the sole preserve of the central government. No one else has a say in it. Had that not been so, I am certain we may not have got anything there either.
Contrast this with China. They have all the things we don't--price stability, increasing output, good schools and hospitals, proper governance and so on. And they also have good relations with everyone that we claim to have good relations with.
The main difference between them and us is that they have a government that works. We have a government that dozes.
And the irony is that in China the government, not having to face elections and thus not having the need to claim credit, can afford to doze while ours has perforce to be active so that it can claim credit in order to get re-elected.
Instead, it is the other way around. In China the government is hyper-active while the only credit our government thinks that is worth claiming is looking like a nodding donkey.