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|September 5, 2001||
T V R Shenoy
The tumble and the fall
I remember my literature professor telling me about the 'three unities' of drama -- time, place, and action. All politics is theatrics of a sort. So what does one make of the recent reshuffle? Well, time, place, and action hold true here as well.
Let me begin with the timing of the reshuffle. It was, many thought, a little late in the day. It would, perhaps, have been better had it come earlier. I am not sure this is a true reading of the situation, nor quite fair to the prime minister.
Right now, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has remarkable freedom of action. In the early days -- both in March 1998 and in October 1999 -- he was trammelled by allies who didn't necessarily share his philosophy. The limitations of coalition government meant there were some ministers in sensitive posts who didn't truly deserve to be there.
So what has changed? Primarily, the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies are a lot more nervous, thus a lot less ready to challenge the prime minister unnecessarily. Some of them have lost electoral battles -- Mamata Banerjee in the West Bengal assembly polls and the Telugu Desam in the Andhra Pradesh local body election. Or they have found that their non-BJP allies weren't quite as amenable -- the Congress in Mamata Banerjee's case, Jayalalithaa where Ramdoss and his PMK were concerned.
The Bharatiya Janata Party's allies have thus been rudely reminded that it is necessary for them to hang together. This paradox -- loss of popular support for his allies leading to greater freedom of manoeuvre for the prime minister -- means this was the right time for a reshuffle.
Let us now come to 'place'. Students of political science know this word has a distinct meaning when it comes to administration -- basically 'who goes where'. There have been three major changes -- those affecting Sharad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, and Jagmohan.
The first two were shifted out of the aviation and communications ministries respectively for their sheer inactivity. I don't know whether the two sat pat because of incompetence or old-fashioned laziness. What I do know is that both men were obstacles on the highway of economic reform.
Liberalisation, essentially, means taking the government out of the way. It was a philosophy neither Sharad Yadav nor Paswan shared. They appeared to believe that their ministries were nothing more than a fountain of patronage.
Witness the results! Singapore Airlines, arguably the best in the world, pulled out of the bidding for Air-India, citing an 'adverse climate' and 'opposition to privatisation.' That is a not-so-veiled allusion to Sharad Yadav's public musings on retaining control of the airline. Maybe the minister forgot that Air-India was actually founded by a private house, the Tatas, with the Government of India taking over in a thuggish display of nationalisation!
How about Ram Vilas Paswan? Anyone who has struggled with malfunctioning phones hardly needs to be told of the evils of monopoly. And here are a couple of other titbits. We all know how important the Internet is to the infotech industry. We also know that communications bandwidth is a major problem, and that allowing private industry might solve it. This is something even the Chinese and the Vietnamese have realised. But Paswan simply wasn't bothered. Should it come as a surprise then that India now has barely 2 per cent of the bandwidth available to China? (Forget about the United States or other industrialised nations!)
It was high time, and more, that Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan were moved out of their departments. I must confess, however, that I am more than a little apprehensive about their new charges -- the labour ministry for Yadav and that of coal, steel, and mines for Paswan. When reform of the labour laws is so necessary, putting Yadav in that ministry appears to be a recipe for disaster. As for Paswan's new charge, quite frankly I believe the wretched ministry should be abolished altogether, with any limited responsibilities transferred to the industry ministry.
The grouchiness with which both Yadav and Paswan took on their new ministries gave the game away. In any other country, moving from civil aviation to labour would have been considered a promotion. But it offers fewer avenues for patronage -- and so Yadav grumbles away. And, not to be left behind, Paswan's men mumble about a Dalit leader being insulted!
How about Jagmohan? He was honest, diligent, and excellent in the ministry of urban affairs. I think his removal to the tourism ministry will cause no little heartburn in the middle class. (It will, of course, be applauded by slum lords and everyone else who patronises unauthorised construction.) Jagmohan, let us face it, was moved because of pressure from within the Bharatiya Janata Party itself rather than because of an unsatisfactory performance.
If I had to find fault, there was one flaw in Jagmohan's performance. While a member of the Union council of ministers, he seemed to concentrate only on Delhi. I hope he will bring the same energy and enthusiasm to the tourism ministry -- encouraging other cities to improve their services to attract tourists. God knows India needs tourists; the country receives less tourist revenue than smaller nations such as Thailand.
And so, let us come to the final dramatic unity -- action. Trust me, a lot of it is required. The tenth five-year plan envisages mopping up Rs 80,000 crore through disinvestment, about Rs 16,000 crore every year. At the current rate, we will be lucky to see Rs 2,000 crore every year. The chief cause of this lethargy is the political-bureaucratic-trade union nexus. Breaking it will take a lot of hard work.
The prime minister got to choose the time and the place. His ministers must now back him up with their action.
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