No sense of direction?


Governments are out of steam after traversing some distance. It happens all over the world because the enthusiasm with which they start peters out, the promises which they make become remote and the schemes which they take up lack push. This is the most charitable explanation of Manmohan Singh government’s non-performance. It has no sense of direction. How can it direct the nation? This comes out clearly as the government reaches the midpoint of its five-year tenure.

Yet, it does not realise how strong the ground swell of public opinion against it is. The agitation by Anna Hazare gave evidence of that. Reshuffling the cabinet is not going to make people’s anger go away unless they see some concrete steps to eliminate corruption. The battered government has to come up with the answer to explain why the system does not function. The government’s ham-handedness can be judged by the way even the finance minister’s office in the secure North Block was broken in to bug and leave chewing gums to mock at the entire exercise of security.

By changing portfolios, the prime minister does not improve the efficiency of departments or quicken the pace of decisions. And what do you do about integrity? Practically, all the ministers of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are mixed up with a magnet in the corporate sector or the other. Ineptness has, in fact, become the hallmark of the government.

Even if you were to leave out corruption, which has been the maximum since independence, you would find numerous examples of sloth and slovenliness strewn all over the administration. Maybe, there is a purpose behind it, probably to cover up the fallout of unholy alliance between ministers and bureaucrats. The government seems to live under the illusion that the subsidies and pro-poor yojans (plans) keep the aam aadmi happy. Half of the allocation does not reach him and what reaches him tends to make most among the indolent and hopelessly dependent. Punjab and Haryana are two examples where the agriculture labour prefers to draw a dole than work.

What depresses me is the prime minister’s belief that nothing is wrong with the government and that its image has been damaged by the media and the judiciary in that order. He should realise that both are the consequences, not the causes. The cause is the series of scams which would have remained unexposed if journalists had not brought them before the public and judges had not pulled up the administration. Manmohan Singh goes by what the bureaucrats tell him or the senior ministers suggest. They are cut off from the public and do not know about its thinking.

My feeling is that time is running out. The prime minister does not realise that he has no leeway and must act now if he does not want the situation going out of hand. He should compare his last tenure with the present one. Then it looked as if he had thought over the steps he was taking. Despite the pressure of coalition partners, he had his way. True, he performed less than expectations, but did not seem out of depth as he looks today.

In the current tenure, he does not seem to get anything right. Understandably, he feels uncertain because he has to manage some 24 parties and does not have the chunk of 60-odd members from the left to depend on. But the coalition dharma does not mean that he should connive at the corruption of its members. The correspondence between him and ex-Telecommunication Minister A Raja shows that he knew about the corruption of DMK members in the cabinet and still he did not do anything about it. Manmohan Singh should have at least warned the DMK chief K. Karunanidhi instead of placating him. True, Congress president Sonia Gandhi dictates the terms and she was not willing to upset the applecart in the beginning of the second term.

The issue of price hike is a serious one. There must be something wrong somewhere to allow it go haywire as it has. By saying that inflation is “causing worry,” the government does not mollify the angry nation. I get the impression that the rulers have no idea of coping with the ever-increasing prices. “We have no magic wand,” is the stock reply when pressed to explain why prices are inordinately high. No economist is required to tell the government that it is a question of demand and supply. What is required is productivity. The government has no immediate plans to do so. Probably, it has referred the matter to the Planning Commission which will tell us in good time what steps to take. By that time inflation would have risen still further.

Has the government ever tried to cut its expenditure? I do not hear the word austerity in official circles any longer. Almost 75 per cent of petrol and diesel is utilised by vehicles of government and the public sector undertakings. Why doesn’t the government reduce the cavalcade of cars and security personnel with a minister or a VIP? I thought BJP leader L K Advani would have been sensitive enough to voluntarily cut the number of cars and security men when he travels. In fact, all opposition leaders in the country should unilaterally surrender all vehicles that follow them except the one which carries the security men. This may be one way to shame the government.

The prime minister and the Congress president are now engaged in an exercise to refurbish the image of the government. They should recall how Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri stressed on economising the government expenditure. Shastri even gave a call for “miss a meal” since the food was in short supply. That spirit in leadership is lacking.

Concrete steps are required to convince people that the government is serious about eliminating corruption as well as avoiding wasteful expenditure. A government cannot prove its dynamism by the prime minister’s briefing to some editors. He should come out of the pardah more often and face the nation.


The writer is a senior Indian journalist.