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Six on 10, surely you're joking?

Six on 10, surely you're joking?

Author: Sunil Jain
Publication: The Business Standard
Date: May 23, 2005

Set your sights low enough, and any progress made looks meaningful. And so it is with the score of six out of 10 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has given the UPA government on its completion of a year in office. Use any other criterion, certainly by the standards set by Singh himself, and the performance is well below even a passing grade.

At this point, apologists and the spin-masters hired by the UPA will come out and tout the major achievements in the aviation sector and the opening up of banking, but it would be foolish to get caught up in the detail, especially since the NDA can rightfully claim that it had set the ball rolling on each of these initiatives.

And surely the performance in the petroleum and finance ministries cannot be considered good, given the happenings on the fringe benefit tax (FBT), the cash withdrawal tax (CWT), the ITC ordinance, the fiscal "pause" or the refusal to allow any freedom to the oil PSUs to either set prices or even take investment decisions. So let's rise above the initiatives-taken debate and focus on what Singh has stood for and what the UPA has done on that score.

Clearly decency in public life is the topmost on the list considering the Prime Minister's squeaky clean image. But surely the refusal to allow the corruption case to proceed against Satish Sharma or the attempt to drop the cases against key ally Lalu Prasad by getting an income tax clearance for him have little to do with promoting decency in public life? The way the UPA tried to distort all democratic processes in Goa and Jharkhand goes to prove the same point.

Singh managed to improve his image in this case (we're told by the spin gurus that it was indeed his personal initiative) by ensuring this didn't happen in Bihar, a place where most expected some mischief given the governor's supplicant-like attitude towards the Nehru-Gandhis.

But after flattering to deceive, when the governor began some cleaning up in the state, Singh allowed the governor to remove the two district magistrates who were involved in the cleaning up and were giving Lalu Prasad's followers a hard time, and even installed a pro-Lalu advisor in the state.

While many would describe giving in to Lalu's demands as realpolitik, a measure to ensure the government's survival, it's nothing of the sort since anyone knows that Lalu has nowhere to go, that he cannot be seen as pulling down a "secular" government, so apart from sulking, there's nothing the man can do.

The removal of the two district magistrates in Bihar, CK Anil and KK Pathak, of course, also makes a mockery of the other major initiative of the UPA-to clean up the system by giving tenure to bureaucrats to allow them to function without the fear of transfer.

As for the track record on this, Cabinet Secretary Kamal Pande was transferred as soon as the UPA came to power, as was the defence secretary; a senior bureaucrat was moved out of the aviation ministry around the time he objected to the re-opening of Air-India and Indian Airlines' aircraft acquisition plans; the same happened when the tourism secretary and the minister fell apart, and I'm sure there are countless other heads of departmental bodies that have suffered the same fate.

Religious detoxification has been another major plank of the UPA, and is the reason for why the other Singh, Arjun, still retains his place in the Union Cabinet despite doing nothing really meaningful for the education sector.

I must admit I'm not a supporter of Arjun Singh's detox and attempts to remove what he thinks is a VHP-RSS view of history, especially since what this was seeking to replace was the Marxist view of history that says, to cite one famous instance of the propaganda, Hindu kings routinely destroyed temples constructed by other Hindu kings that they defeated in battle! But if propagating religion is all that the BJP did, surely the UPA's decision to reserve half the seats in Aligarh Muslim University for Muslims is also playing the religion card?

Let's leave even this aside, since everyone knows that Dr Singh is an economic pundit, though it is unfortunate that a Prime Minister's job is a political one. What are the big economic initiatives? The ITC ordinance was one since it clearly laid out that even if the highest court in the land says a tax demand is unjustified, the government had the right to appropriate what it wants to.

The FBT and CWT were similarly poorly-conceived, and the "pause" button of the fiscal front is surely something Singh must have given a failing grade to when he arrived at his six on 10 score. The implementation of VAT, of course, gets the government a high score, especially seeing how the NDA kept pushing it off, though its progress remains patchy and the framework will become robust only after a few years as with all such revolutionary taxes.

The employment guarantee, another major initiative, appears to be the most flawed since its benefits are overstated-more than 98 per cent of the rural poor, for whom the scheme is designed, are already employed for more than six days a week, official data show-and there is no means worked out to ensure the usual leakages of 60-70 per cent associated with such projects don't re-occur (See Rational Expectations, October 25, 2004).

Singh, similarly, has repeatedly refused to do anything to fix the Employees Pension Scheme which already has a hole of Rs 19,000 crore and is hurtling towards a UTI-type bust, ironically a scheme begun by Singh himself as finance minister a decade ago. Clearly a 60 per cent score today doesn't mean what it used to in the old days.


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