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India desperately seeks change and hope from a new govt

February 18, 2014 19:24 IST

Shreekant Sambrani is confident that today's adversity will make the country emerge even stronger

Last Independence Day, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, not yet the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, hoisted the national flag and addressed the nation shortly after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had done the same from the Red Fort. The political picture that rainy Independence Day was as cloudy as the sky.

That was just six months ago, a mere blink in an ancient country. But since one week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson famously observed, the preceding half year has been virtually an eon in our Republic.

Different agencies conducted four major opinion polls in January-February 2014 for various media outlets. They differed in detail, but agreed at the aggregate level. The BJP was poised to get 200 or more seats, the Congress around 100 and, despite strong awareness among urban voters, the Aam Aadmi Party was hard put to get into double figures.

The BJP’s vote share was expected to exceed that of the Congress decisively.

Our polls may not be as well executed as those in the United States, but when independent exercises throw up such remarkable convergences, we do not need a Nate Silver, the celebrated analyst, to tell us which way the wind is blowing.

The Congress is most likely in a terminal decline. The Narendra Modi-BJP juggernaut rolls along, despite some hiccups. And the AAP meteor seems to be disintegrating upon its entry into the atmosphere of Realpolitik.

This cannot be just another instance of anti-incumbency. The abysmal economic mismanagement has manifested as rampaging inflation. Governance is opaque and remote. The stench of corruption is pervasive. All these have caused revulsion, often visceral, towards the Congress-led government.

India desperately seeks change and hope from a new government.

Since we will have a new occupant of 7 Race Course Road come late May, it would be appropriate to term the first customary speech of the new prime minister -- whoever it may be -- as the inaugural address. Here are some words that would be most welcome:

“I thank all Indians, regardless of who they voted for, for this opportunity to share my views on the challenges we face. We have been through a rough patch. I would be lying if I were to say today that we will shortly overcome it. A spirit of openness and transparency demands that I must tell you progress will be gradual but definite. That same spirit motivates me to pledge that I shall engage in frequent dialogues, both through speaking directly with you and answering questions from our vigilant media.

As I travelled the country last year, I felt that we all have an old man, the old man of inflation, riding our back. Like the old man of the sea that rode Sinbad, he has us in a death-vice grip. Mothers daily worry about adequate food for their beloveds in the face of ever-rising prices.

My government's first priority is to rid us of this monster. Many theories are afloat as to why costs soar even as our agricultural production grows, but no one is quite sure of what to do. I have today appointed a blue-ribbon committee of five renowned experts without political affiliations to look into this.

They are to work fast, and not necessarily produce an academic report. By Independence Day, they will have told us what they think and given us a workable plan. When I talk to you again that day, I will share that with you and tell you what the government intends to do. Our initial steps would be in place by Diwali and by the end of 2014, we will have begun to tame the beast.

These dates are my red lines and I solemnly undertake not to cross these deadlines.

However quickly we tackle the killer inflation that will only give the economy a fresh wind. It needs to have stronger limbs as well if it is to stay the long distance to recovery. We have done well with services, especially in information technology. Now we need to show the same vigour, capacity and stamina in industry and agriculture, the two legs that will propel the economy.

We produce cars and trucks, but import components. We love computers and consumer electronics, but don't make them. We are among the largest buyers of defence hardware, but we import most of it. We must reverse this.

We need to build a mass manufacturing base. We need to complement our demographic dividend with skills and become globally competitive. We need to provide every incentive to entrepreneurs to set up modern large-scale manufacturing facilities.

My government will start clearing the clutter of existing institutions and processes. We will refurbish industrial training institutes with equipment and the pool of retired armed forces and private industries personnel as training resources. At the Central government, we will minimise overlapping jurisdictions and create equivalents of time-bound one-window clearances.

We will simplify environmental and administrative compliances without sacrificing our commitment to clean air and water. Within the next six months, the government will start shedding flab and a streamlined industry-friendly administrative set-up will emerge.

That process, beginning with industry and infrastructure, will be extended to finance and taxation. We have taken some tentative steps to rationalise direct tax codes and move towards a general sales and services tax.

I have also appointed today a task force of five eminent former ministers and secretaries, chosen for their track record and not party affiliations, to go into these concerns. Their mission is to evolve a demystified tax system that reduces the average burden and widens the net.

Paying taxes always pinches, but with the wise counsel of these eminent persons, we should transit to a resource mobilisation regime of less pain and more gain within the next year.

Our farmers are among the hardest working in the world, but have limited land and water. We need to use appropriate technology and ingenuous institutions to help them realise their full potential. We need seeds and plants that thrive even under drought and water logging, varieties that tolerate salt in the coastal areas.

We must produce not just more wheat and rice, but also more jowar, pulses, oilseeds, sugar, fibre, and fruits and vegetables, even as their cost of production is controlled.

My government will immediately mount a search mission to attain the goal of more crop for each drop and boost our productivity to world levels, even on small plots. We will access technology available anywhere in the world that meets our objectives. We will expedite clearances, with due attention to biodiversity and safety, but will not back away in the face of some imagined fears.

Our farmers are still bound hand and foot to antiquated procedures and facilities. We will free them at the earliest through measures and structures that reduce the distance, physical and procedural, between producers and users. We will combine efficiencies of small-scale production with economies of large-scale modern processing and marketing, as in case of dairying. That will help bring about greater harmony between town and country.

I want to assure you that with these steps, India will soon be back on the high-growth path. That is the sure-fire way to reduce poverty and attain equality, as experience tells us. That will also boost investment -- both Indian and foreign -- in our enterprises, making them modern and competitive. We have been worried about our external trade and payments balance for some time.

These prescriptions have the added advantage of addressing those problems as well. I believe, as I am sure all of you do, that the best way to strengthen the rupee is to strengthen the economy. And that is exactly what we intend to do.

India has shown its spirit time and again. Defying all apprehensions, a poor illiterate country became the world's largest democracy. A country written off as an agricultural basket case now exports grain and produce. A nation that pledged its gold to stave off default has achieved sustained high rates of growth.

I am confident that today's adversity will make us emerge even stronger. I seek your patience as we reposition ourselves and your whole-hearted co-operation in furthering the adventure called India. Jai Hind!"

Shreekant Sambrani