Starting somewhere in the middle of its second term, the United Progressive Alliance has built a model of governance predicated on three strategies: blaming an ally for its own indecisiveness or a corruption scandal that has come to light; setting a deadline for a burst of activity unheard of in the past eight years; and holding forth the promise, without getting into the details, of measures that will take India back to the golden age of Ashoka when roads were wide, travellers safe, people, prosperous, and everything else, as it should be.
All of this has been on display in recent days, and your favourite newspaper has been hard-pressed to hold itself back from becoming an irrational cheerleader of the government’s actions. Some of the narrative has come with the insidious sub-text that suggests that much of the current economic ills can be attributed to the last resident of North Block, who is now on his way to become the next resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan (unless things go horribly wrong). This has found eager takers in the media, although Mint, which has long held that Pranab Mukherjee isn’t a great finance minister (or even a good one) hasn’t joined in the chorus although it has taken stock of the man’s very pedestrian stint in office. Still, to blame him for all that ails India’s economy would be akin to me blaming a deputy editor of Mint for a bad paper on a day when I was in the newsroom and running things.
The effort to paint Mukherjee as the villain of the piece also raises two questions.
One, if the Prime Minister knew what had to be done, why didn’t he do it or insist it be done?
Two, if all it takes to solve a problem is to get the Prime Minister and the good people in his office to intervene, which, going by the most recent evidence on offer, will happen only when the Prime Minister takes over a portfolio, then what do we have to do to have him take over other portfolios?
After all, HRD (which, like IIT, is a three-letter word) has its fair share of problems. So does telecommunications (I am sure it is merely a coincidence that both are headed by the same minister). Defence, power, surface transport, all face challenges. The Prime Minister may have the answer to everything, but he will only speak out when he is directly in charge of the ministry—and then, though carefully placed media reports by well-briefed journalists—and not when he is (as he continues to be), in overall charge of the government.
This worries me as I am sure it does a lot of other people. There are some investors and businessmen who haven’t forgotten the great things the current Prime Minister did back in 1991 when he was the finance minister and they have cheered his move to take charge of the finance ministry on the basis of those memories.
I, too, have a retro-streak in me and count myself among the fans of the Prime Minister for what he did back then—among other things, 1991 catalysed the evolution of financial journalism in the country—but I am more worried by what the past eight years have shown of the man’s leadership abilities. Indeed, the morning after the finance ministry put out a late-night draft clarifying the contentious draft general anti-avoidance rules, the Prime Minister’s office issued a clarification effectively disowning them and said that these were “put out for receiving wide-ranging feedback and for discussion purposes only” and that they had “not be seen by the Prime Minister” and would be “finalized with the approval of the Prime Minister, who holds the finance portfolio…” The clarification also said the draft guidelines came “from the official level of the finance ministry”.
The message I got from the note was: “Don’t like the draft guidelines? Don’t blame me. You know whom to blame.”
Then, I may be over-reacting. I’d be happy to be proved wrong on all counts and have the Prime Minister successfully solve most of the economy and the country’s pressing problems. And the mistake will be my own, not that of Mint’s other editors.
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