Independent India has found itself backed into serious crisis several times in the past (political, economic and national security crises), and each time found the resilience to bounce back and enter a new phase of expansive growth. The Green Revolution, the 1991 reforms and the Kargil War are three of the more salient instances.
Thus a crisis could be an occasion for catharsis – an opportunity for the system to purge itself of dysfunctionalities and transform itself. “Never let a crisis go waste”, as was famously said by Rahm Emmanuel, the then chief of staff of US president Barack Obama when the newly elected president took office in US in 2009.
Sadly, there seems little chance of such a resolution this time as India finds itself embroiled in what can only be called a national ‘crisis of corruption’ – corruption not only in the narrow financial sense, but also moral and ideological corruption.
Though we have been witness to revelations of a series of scams (2G, NHRM, Adarsh, CWG, Coalgate) of mind-boggling proportions, no one has really been brought to book. The shamelessly compromised political class is in a defiant mode, brazening it out before a passive and dysfunctional judicial system.
The UPA government, headed by a political cipher of a PM, has long ago lost its credibility and moral authority to continue in office, but is determined to cling to power by fair means and foul. It is blatantly using the principal investigating agencies, the CBI and the ED to keep up pressure on the DMK, the BSP and the SP (three of the largest parties in the Lok Sabha, their leaders deeply involved in corruption cases) and ensure their support so that the Congress party is not forced to face the electorate any time soon.
It is also using these agencies as attack dogs to threaten and go after civil society groups like Anna Hazare and his team and Baba Ramdev’s organization who dared to organize protests and demand action against corruption and black money.
Meanwhile, the world watches with amazement as the Indian economy, capable of a double-digit growth rate with a few strategic reform measures, collapses and investment shuts down because of self-inflicted wounds and policy paralysis.
An editorial in today’s Mint, the business newspaper, describes well the modus operandi of this government:
Overall, this government’s decisions, if they can be called that, follow a pattern. They veer between two extremes: either the decisions are so dubious that they can be safely termed tainted (the 2G spectrum allocation process and now coal block allocation) or the government takes no decision. How did it swing from one extreme to the other? Because most of these decisions are made in an opaque environment, an attitude of insouciance and recklessness accompanies the process. There is no fear of the law, leave alone such trifling matters as proper procedure. Years later when, for example, CAG submits a report, the opposition makes life difficult for the government. Matters come to a grinding halt and few, if any decisions, are taken. The consequences of this wayward behaviour have been slowing economic growth and choking of investment.
At the heart of all this is the role of Prime Minister Singh. When the then telecom minister A. Raja was making those terrible decisions on spectrum allocation, Singh chose to look away. His minions tried to save him from those odious developments by saying, “he was not responsible”. What they will not say is that administratively, politically and, certainly morally, the Prime Minister is responsible for these happenings. One can hide behind technicalities such as cut-off dates, advice tendered by other ministries and the like, but that misses the key point: the Prime Minister is the head of government and it is his responsibility to ensure a clean and efficient government. Period.
The coming 21 months are not going to see any dramatic deviation from this pattern of loot and quiescence. If at all, we could see a progressive shortening of the cycle. The consequences for India will only be adverse.
In sheer frustration, the principal opposition party the BJP has taken a stand that the Prime Minister must take responsibility and resign, and it will not let Parliament function till he does so. However, it finds itself isolated on this issue as even its own ally the JD(U) says it is prepared to hear out the PM and for a parliamentary debate on the coal scam.
Against this backdrop, Raghuram Rajan’s appointment as chief economic adviser comes as a breath of fresh air. There cannot be a better person to give wise counsel on the policy measures needed to quickly revive the economy and boost investor confidence.
If the government is really sincere about pushing through key economic reforms such as the GST, FDI in civil aviation and retail, and boost to infrastructure, it ought to be sitting with the senior leaders of the BJP and agreeing on the two national parties setting aside politics for the time being and uniting to implement a minimum economic programme in the best national interest.
It would need courage and conviction on the part of the leaders of both the national parties. Do they have it in them? And, is it anyway too late for such an initiative?