100 Days PLUS
By resolutely eliminating corruption in power structures, removing tainted ministers and by pushing reforms for the majority of poor in the margins, the PM can actually shift the paradigm
WHEN BARACK OBAMA was sworn in as the president of USA, he made it very clear that he would not employ anyone in the administration who was corrupt, tainted or who had links with lobbyists. He put through a system of rigorous checks to weed out all those whose integrity was under a miasma of doubt. Many good candidates for important jobs dropped out of reckoning. Even Tom Geithner, US Treasury Secretary, struggled to clear the tough probity tests. Obama's insistence on getting clean people to populate his administration was consonant with the mood of our times that linked organised corruption with the cataclysmic global slowdown.
Dr Manmohan Singh in his second innings has shown similar resolve to keep away the corrupt and block malfeasance that has plagued many of his public policies. A good showing of the Congress party in the recent elections has given him this confidence to tell his allies that they cannot cross the line that he has drawn on sand. The US and India may belong to different worlds, but the mandate for Obama and Manmohan Singh is similar in many ways. In both these democracies, there was desire for decency, sensitivity and probity in public life. They also wanted sensitive men of substance with steady hand and vision to navigate their uncertain lives. A seasoned economist at the helm like Manmohan Singh, during the financial crisis, was seen as a big plus.
In both the countries, there was a desire to vote out high-strung individuals who were bent upon militarising the State to achieve impossible objectives. People in urban areas perceived BJP leader, LK Advani (and Narendra Modi) - quite like George W Bush - as divisive, much too aggressive for no rhyme or reason, pumping war rhetoric, and a peddler of hate.
Also, the 2009 vote was for good governance. There was a dominant view that in Manmohan Singh - a man of impeccable integrity - and Sonia Gandhi, India had leaders who could provide a clean government that is not weighed down by its rapacious allies.
Economists like Paul Krugman and others attributed large scale corruption for the mess US is in. Fortuitous circumstances allowed India to survive the worst impact of global slowdown, but there is no guarantee against such a catastrophe, if the country does not tighten regulation and ensure that the solvency of the banks was not eroded.
Credit squeeze and lack of easy money had created an environment where predatory capital was keen to strip public sector banks off their wealth, but to the credit of the government, it stayed on course and did not succumb to the exertions of some companies that wanted access to country's foreign exchange reserves for their private external commitments. These pressures would have increased manifold if the mandate had been fractured and the government would have been at the mercy of small parties that are invariably under the control of large business interests.
In more ways than one, the return of Dr Manmohan Singh augurs well for the country. "Manmohan Singh II would be markedly different from his earlier innings. He would assert more and ensure that his ministers do not make money like they did last time," says one of his aides. "If he were not there, the level of corruption would have been of a different scale altogether. With the verdict in favour of his party, he won't tolerate ministers from his party or from allies to carry on with their old ways."
It was due to this reason that Singh made it clear that he would not allow tainted ministers from DMK to re-occupy their old positions. In the last UPA government, surface transport minister, TR Baalu of the DMK, derailed the road projects. The golden quadrilateral project is still incomplete. He shuffled the head of National Highway Authority many times as they allegedly refused to submit to his demands.
The telecom ministry was also a casualty of similar venal instincts. DMK's A Raja, telecom minister in the earlier regime, sold Spectrum, a valuable national asset, for a song to private telecom companies. By not auctioning this scarce resource, telecom watchers claim, the exchequer lost thousands of crores in this exercise.
THE PRIME MINISTER is conscious of what large scale corruption can do to his best laid plans. He is supposed to announce his 100-day plan in his acceptance speech in Parliament and would not like to regret later that only 15 per cent of the designated funds reach the beneficiary. Rahul Gandhi, too, in his election campaign, made a statement that is identified with his father. He said of every Re 1 allocated by the government, only 10 paisa reaches the people.
With such declamations from the top echelons of the Congress leadership, it would not be wrong to expect that the new government would be mindful of how development funds are being utilised. They would also be concerned about CAG reports about the wanton leakage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) funds and how they were lining the coffers of contractors. NREGS provides 100 days of employment for people in rural areas; it has been credited with the good harvest of votes that Congress has had in the recent elections. And, that is when the implementation all over the country has been less than 30 per cent. Better targeting and lesser corruption would have transformed the rural landscape of this country.
The Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Hardnews learns, is working on similar schemes to ensure that the gains of growth reach the vast majority of the abysmally poor who survive outside all social safety nets. Another revolutionary scheme is that of providing smart cards to those living below poverty line. This card, a brainchild of a bureaucrat in the labour ministry, involves giving free medical insurance to a family of five. This simple act would help in reducing farm distress and misery in the countryside which so abjectly lacks basic healthcare. Almost 40 lakh smart cards have been rolled out. The prime minister is likely to announce its coverage to the entire country.
However, the biggest challenge would lie in the area of financial regulation. With G20 making it mandatory for tax havens to clean up their act and usher in transparency in their conduct, the pressure would mount on his government to demand access to all the details about the Indians who have stashed their funds abroad. LK Advani had demanded that the government mount pressure on Switzerland, quite like Obama, to reveal the names of people who had accounts in their banks. Over-enthusiastically, he had claimed that the return of money from Swiss banks would help in developing our poor villages. Advani, as usual, was simplistic and rhetorical. But, there is ample truth in the fact that there has been colossal flight of capital all these years from the country. And, the guilty are not just politicians, but corporate houses that find greater comfort setting up holding companies in Swiss cantons like Zug.
The Indian government's track record in dealing with foreign banks has been quite abysmal. As revealed by Hardnews on its website, www.hardnewsmedia.com, Swiss authorities had complained that their Indian counterparts had given them forged documents in a hawala case involving a stud farm owner Hassan Ali Khan. Singh should take a hard look at the way our enforcement agencies function so that regulation acquires a different kind of meaning. A lackadaisical attitude from agencies is unlikely to give content to Singh's drive towards ushering probity in public life.
The mandate of 2009 is for giving quality governance to a people who have been ravaged by corruption, insensitivity and indifference for 60 years plus. People want a mix of the sensitivity of Sheila Dikshit, aggressive governance of YS Rajasekhara Reddy and probity of Manmohan Singh to be replicated at different parts of the country. These hopes can be met only if there is an assurance that the country's wealth would not be squirrelled away in tax havens.