Sunday, July 01, 2012

Country needs leader having clear mandate

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were many unintended consequences of the chase for the tenancy of Lutyens’ grand palace on Raisina Hill. The most significant of these was the Congress Party’s public expression of faith in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is true that this happened in the strangest of circumstances—a public ridicule of the PM by the short-lived Mamata-Mulayam entente and the Congress’ inexplicable 14-hour silence that was broken after persistent prodding by the PMO. But regardless of the murky gracelessness of the occasion, the fact remains that the superannuation of Pranab Mukherjee will also see Manmohan Singh enjoy security of tenure till May 2014.

For a PM who is naturally concerned about what legacy he leaves behind after two terms in office, this peace of mind is of utmost importance. No individual in a position of importance can be expected to perform if he is dogged by constant uncertainty of tenure—as Manmohan certainly was until, fortuitously, the voters of UP decided earlier this year that the designated successor wasn’t quite up to scratch. Now, the question is: what is the PM going to do with this 20-month window of opportunity?

The PM told the nation last Independence Day that he doesn’t possess a “magic wand”. Unfortunately for him, this is precisely what a large section of India hopes he has. With President-designate Mukherjee having bequeathed to him an economy in near-shambles, public expectations from the PM have reached dizzying heights. Corporate India wants him to restore the GDP to an acceptable level, his party wants him to create a political terrain that will allow the UPA to make a fight of the 2014 election, and ordinary people want a return of purposeful governance.

The national charter of demands from the PM is daunting. What is even more troubling is that that the repair job doesn’t merely call for technocratic expertise; it necessitates political clout. The likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia and C. Rangarajan, the Praetorian Guards of the PM, believe that a restoration of global confidence in India coupled with a booster dose of ‘reforms’ will see the country back on track. Their implicit message over the past few weeks is simple: have faith in the PM and leave it to the experts.

It is not a reassuring message. Among the main reasons why the mere existence of a crisis was denied till the Rupee went into a free fall six weeks ago and the ratings agencies started publishing adverse reports, was that the Government was itself confused over its priorities. Should it play to the galleries and enlarge the scope of entitlements, or should it attend to issues such as the fiscal deficit, investor confidence and the GDP? What is interesting is that in the face of severe hiccups, the Congress has failed to engage with these choices politically. The urgency and clear-headed ruthlessness it has shown in matters affecting its very survival and the reputation of Sonia Gandhi have not been replicated in any project to extricate the economy from its present made-in-India crisis.

The result is all too visible: the PM doesn’t have any clear political mandate for attending to the economic mismanagement. What is even worse is that he has not felt it necessary to seek this mandate from his party. Consequently, governance has degenerated into a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward exercise. No wonder there has been a mushrooming of committees, the time-tested recipe for prevarication. Even on a clear-cut issue as the contentious GAAR, the bureaucracy has been able to stall a quick confidence-building step.

But why blame the babus? The paralysis in governance can also be attributed to the regime’s low integrity quotient. With corruption clouds hovering over too many senior ministers, there is systemic reluctance to undertake steps that short-circuit an exhaustive due diligence process. Ironically, the pressures for greater transparency and accountability have ended up slowing down the wheels of government at a time when rapid response is imperative.

The situation demands two developments: an end to the political logjam through a clear popular mandate, and the leadership of an ‘outsider’ dedicated to brushing away the accumulated cobwebs from government. Sadly, Manmohan is too much of a creature of a plodding system.

Sunday Times of India, July 1, 2012 

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