You must have already heard the joke. Our Prime Minister. Dr Manmohan Singh, goes to a dentist and sits down on the padded reclining seat with all those ratchets and levers and waits for the dentist to do his job. Who, after waiting in vain for a few moments, says: “Sir, you are at the dentist’s. You have to open your mouth here.”
The policy paralysis that has affected the Indian government over the last two years is astonishing by any measure. There’s a global economic crisis that is coming to a head like a runaway train in the last ten minutes of a high-budget Hollywood action thriller. It’s a matter of a weeks—in our time—before the destiny of the train and its passengers is decided, without the help of any snazzy computer graphics. The Greek economy is about to collapse, others are teetering on the brink, the euro is stumbling into the valley of death, and all that the keepers of India’s economy have to say concerns decimal points—7.5 or 7.2 or 7.8. The rupee is tumbling against the dollar, making imports –most significantly, of oil—costlier, which will certainly raise prices, and the headlines in the papers—because that’s about all the editors can salvage for a splash on the front page—are about Pranab Mukherjee saying that P. Chidambaram is a valued colleague. That must be reassuring, from Ratan Tata right down to the Maoists in Dandakaranya.
This government is now fully and abjectly dependent, as far as the economy goes, on “the kindness of strangers”, that disturbing phrase from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. OK, let’s have it in full. Blanche Dubois, alcoholic, unstable and doomed, mutters: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” as she is led away by a doctor to the lunatic asylum. The strangers, in this case, would be Indian industry, which is expected to perform some miracle in spite of the government’s numbing apathy and eerie policy silence. And of course, the Indian consumer, who will need to keep buying and consuming, even as his government continues to look like Uriah Heep attempting a Jackson Pollock painting.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh onboard Air India One enroute from Frankfurt to New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: PTI
All that one can make of the UPA is that it desperately wants to win the next general elections. Which, it has decided, entails announcing massive social sector schemes. Have those schemes worked? No. Forget the endemic corruption—which any fool would have tried to contain aggressively when there’s so much government largesse at stake, you can’t even reach the minimum monthly earnings to a day labourer under the MNREGA scheme in large parts of India, for the simple reason that the roads to and from his village exist only on paper. And we have our mandarins debating 7.5 and 7.8? Give me a break. Our basic infrastructure is still in shambles, our power sector remains essentially a hungry parasite on our honest incomes, 40 per cent of our food still rots on the way to market—and these facts have been mentioned and reported endlessly and not changed a whit in the last 20 years. But a clueless paralysis cannot know shame.
As the global economy enters a cliffhanger stage, our government can’t even produce a quotable quote. What it surely realizes is that it will not be able to meet its fiscal deficit targets (which will only stoke inflation), that it will not be able to raise Rs 40,000 crore through disinvestment in this financial year, that it does not have the money to spend what is needed in the infrastructure sector, and that its strategy to get prices down will get nowhere. Caught in a vortex of infighting and insubordination, a Mr Bean-ish blundering around corruption scandals, an utter confusion between the way forward and the path back to long-discredited socialism, all that this government has been giving us is hand-wringing silence. The sound of two hands wringing—that’s not even funny Zen.