Muddling Through Is Not Enough

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By B.G. Verghese
The presidential nomination process has been vitiated by the appalling manner in which distinguished names have been bruited about, scorned and discarded as damaged goods in games of petty politics to pressure, even break, the government and not merely propel “our” candidate into RashtrapatiBhavan. This has degraded that high office too. The Trinamool-SP gambit proposing ManmohanSingh’s “elevation” to the Presidency is a scarcely disguised vote of non-confidence in him as prime minister. Sonia Gandhi too has been bruised by her mishandling of the situation. Confabulations will continue and compromises will be made, with the vice-presidency as a trade-off. But it is not certain that the UPA will fall or be hustled into an early mid-term poll. The situation remains confused as of this writing.

Even as it is buffeted by negative global influences and mindless opposition at home, with internal political sabotage by the Trinamool Congress, the UPA is struggling to contain the downward economic spiral whose fall out is beginning to be increasingly felt in terms of investment sentiment, falling demand (as for automobiles and textiles), declining growth, lay-offs and unemployment. The PM set aRs 1 lakh crore infrastructure investment target at a key stock-taking meeting earlier this month, with specific programmes laid out for the ports, roads, aviation, coal and power sectors. The market rallied.

However, the Trinamool is intent on sabotaging the Government at every opportunity. It has objected to revised proposals for going ahead with pension reform and allowing foreign airlines to pick up a stake in Indian carriers, something that could give a boost to the ailing Indian aviation industry. She is holding out for a financial “package” which she feels the country owes her for years of Left misrule in Bengal. That alibi for non-performance has worn thin. But as long as the Congress is willing to be blackmailed, it will be.

Fortunately, Assam’s chief minister, TarunGogoi has spoken up. He has said that something as crucial to his state and farmers as allowing multi-brand retail cannot be held hostage to the whims of obstructionist governments. Let them stay out if they wish but none should be permitted to block the progress of others. He added that Assam was short of rural infrastructure and farmers were at the mercy of middlemen and moneylenders. This is true elsewhere too and the Gogoi formula should be followed, with an option to dissenters to opt out and join later – which they will probably do as soon as the results are apparent.

It is good that the striking Air India pilots are being dealt with firmly. They too are holding a thoroughly mismanaged airline to ransom and it isastonishing that in the midst of this crisis MP’s are discussing, even seeking, “facilitation” privileges and “compliments of the captain” at airports while travelling Air India. This moral collapse is blood brother to corruption that has become a way of life for so many, with endless discussion substituting for bold and essentially simple action.

Corruption has now become political currency with everybody flinging every allegation and rumour at everybody else and demanding the immediate resignation of those thus maligned if holding office even though being investigated by due process. Witness the brouhaha over a court order sanctioning further proceedings in an election petition concerning Home Minister Chidambaram, minus two salient charges.  Yes, the hearings should proceed but why need the Minister resign when nothing is proven, only alleged?

Likewise, the absolutely absurd clamour for an SIT against the Prime Minister on “coal-gate”, based on astronomic calculations of loss contained in a draft paper of the CAG which stands modified or withdrawn. The CBI is investigating the matter but now the demand is for a court-appointed special investigation team to take over as the CBI will be influenced by the Government. This amounts to damning the highest political executive on an unproven allegation and reducing the Government to a lame duck or worse at a time of global and domestic crisis and turbulence.

The global rating agency, Standard and Poor’s comment on this may be gratuitous and excessive but cannot for that reason be lightly disregarded. Anna and his team, now reduced to clowning, and Baba Ramedev, a dubious character, must beware of being seen as out to oust or paralyse the Government as they seem woefully unaware or unmindful of the implications of their actions. Yet it is foolish of Government spokespersons to label them anti-national or to hint darkly of a “foreign hand”. The Government’s public relations has been and remains appallingly poor in the absence of any communication policy, with sundry ministers sounding off like loose cannon.

While the effort should be to get the economy moving, the report of the parliamentary panelon the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill makes some odd recommendations that reflect old mind sets. Take for example the plea that land should not be acquired for projects that entail profit. India has remained poor because of such ideological idiocy. Profit, honestly made and subject to tax, is no crime. Then again, the report defines “public purpose” too narrowly and views land acquisition for private enterprise or public-private partnership with suspicion. Is creation of social and industrial infrastructure and the creation of jobs not public purpose? Do these investments not have a huge multiplier? And is barring acquisition of agricultural land in the interest of “food security” in any circumstances not too sweeping? The 12th Plan proposes private investment of the order of $ 500 bn for infrastructure. Should this not be encouraged while ensuring fair terms to the landholder?

B.D. Sharma, that indefatigable fighter for tribal rights, has gone too far in opining that life has got worse for tribals in Independent India. It has in some ways, as previously untouched lands have been opened up to development and mineral exploitation without the protection of the 5th Schedule, which has been brazenly set aside. Yet, many tribal people have gained and most want progress and change and do not wish to be condemned to live as noble savages.  Properly regulated development and natural resource exploitation in partnership with them under the 5th Schedule and PESA would benefit the tribal people. Critics have simply begged the question. We cannot return to the past to build the future. And time is a vital resource.

The agitation against dams to “Save the Ganga” and other so-called sacred sites or pristine nature is also blocking progress and welfare on dubious grounds. The triumphantly stalled multipurpose Subernarekha project in Jharkhand is finally moving forward after 35 years. According to some news reports, sullenness has turned to expectancy as tribal beneficiaries look forward to the water, electricity and jobs so long denied them. The story has a moral. The scrapping of dams in Uttarakhand, Himachal, Sikkim and Arunachal is likely to cause much national loss and human hardship for any good that it does. Regulating ecological flows, controlling pollution and ensuring proper compensation and resettlement are most important issues that can be dealt without bringing development to a standstill.

www.bgverghese.com

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