Far from stopping him
Two years down the line we have a cabinet with many insubordinate ministers. Many ministers, including lightweights like Meira Kumar , go public with statements of policy. She announced that the private sector must introduce voluntary reservations in two years for the scheduled and backward castes. Natwar Singh (before Volcker brought him down to earth) was an independent member of the cabinet as external affairs minister, who argued for non-alignment and Nehruvian foreign policies, was pro-Iran and hostile to the United States of America when his prime minister was in delicate negotiations with the US on a nuclear deal. A weak and incompetent home minister has repeatedly shown poor reflexes and judgment (Manipur is one example). He is protected by his proximity to the Congress president. The law minister has more than once got the government into difficulties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was abhorrent to Sonia Gandhi as being connected with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, but both she and the prime minister are now frantically wooing the party. The DMK’s cabinet minister, Dayanidhi Maran, runs an independent fief in the telecommunications ministry.
Instead, Arjun Singh used a fairly vague constitutional amendment that said nothing specific about reservations, to announce as government policy, without a cabinet decision, 27 per cent reservation for other backward classes in higher education. No one knows the proportions of these classes in the population. The National Sample Survey suggests that the gap between their numbers in higher education and the total is not wide and the Supreme Court has asked how a number was arrived at by the government. Political parties know reservations are no way to improve the lot of the poor and the backward. They support them because of self-interest of the “creamy layer”, who use the reservations to further their own family interests, and as a political flag of ‘achievement’ during election campaigns. Arjun Singh further preempted the prime minister by categorically saying that the 27 per cent reservation will be enforced at one go by next year. Neither the Congress president nor the prime minister for days through the agitation made any apparent attempt to stop Arjun Singh ’s indiscipline.
Doubtless, urgent actions to improve the lot of the majority, which has not benefited from development — not achieved after 55 years of reservations for scheduled castes — are essential. But this must not hazard improving the economy’s competitiveness in a very competitive world.
Some of the subjects in higher education that make us competitive are English, science, engineering, medicine, management and information technology. To benefit from higher education, the students must enter with basic skills. These skills are learnt in schools. The schools for the poor and backward are of low quality and most (except the brilliant) school-leavers are not equipped to assimilate higher education. The focus therefore has to be on improving school education and on outreach programmes to strengthen capacity among bright school-leavers. Lowering admission standards will lower institutional quality. Many who enter in this way will retain a lifelong sense of inferiority and resentment. An educationist prime minister should have been the first to say and do something about this.
This government has achieved little. The biggest domestic achievement is much greater social expenditure on employment and education, really because of pressure from the communists. How effectively the money is spent has to be seen. Inflation is in check by making oil companies bear rising oil prices. In foreign affairs, the Vajpayee government moved towards closer relations with the US. The UPA signed a nuclear agreement with the Bush administration. Whatever the US Congress might decide, the door is open now for India to raise its nuclear energy profile with help from countries like France, Germany and Russia. That is the one great achievement of this government.
But there are a far larger number of negatives. The UPA government has violated good governance principles in Jharkand, Goa and Bihar. The Congress has appropriated almost all key positions in government and quasi-government organizations for friends and partymen. No thought is given to effective implementation of major initiatives. The hugely expensive employment guarantee might stimulate the economy, but like other government gifts, will waste much money. Casual threats to extend reservations to private-sector employment shake investor confidence. Poor implementation of the road programme and power policies has prevented acceleration of growth.
Seven per cent growth is a legacy of the previous government, and will not inevitably continue. There are many reasons to fear a coming downturn: rising current account deficits, increased by growing foreign commercial borrowings that could weaken company balance sheets, falling food stocks and imports when world prices are rising, poor monsoons, rising oil prices hurting government oil companies, inflation as retail oil prices rise, rising fiscal deficit because of unanticipated expenditures on suddenly raising higher education physical and faculty infrastructure by 50 per cent, rising interest rates and costs squeezing corporate profits and investment, rising American interest rates raising foreign loan costs for corporate borrowers, erratic foreign institutional investment flows and a highly volatile stock market.
Specific measures of this government must also be criticized like the setting up of another pay commission, whose adverse impact will haunt us for the next decade; creating new “independent” regulatory bodies (competition, information, and so on) but staffed almost entirely by retired government servants; inability to reform the systems for recruiting, evaluating, rewarding and punishing the officers of the Central services and other government servants; chaotic decision-making on prices of petroleum products and coal.
The Vajpayee government initiated a relaxation of tensions with Pakistan and a solution to the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, Musharraf’s “core issue”. The UPA government appeared to be following up on those initiatives. The rise in terrorist attacks within Jammu and Kashmir suggests deterioration. The UPA government has made no effort to develop a national consensus between political parties on Jammu and Kashmir. In relation to the Islamic countries, the UPA has tried to continue the Vajpayee government’s policy of being less partisan and more objective, but the Congress’s predilection for bending towards minorities has diluted it.
In sum, powerful cabinet ministers have repeatedly ignored the prime minister. The Congress president as a separate and superior power centre has weakened the prime ministers’ authority with his cabinet colleagues, state governments and the people. It is time for Sonia Gandhi, as the real power centre, to take over as prime minister.