So, why did they do it?

That is the question several people are asking about the government’s ill-fated and ill-timed effort to allow foreign retail chains to operate in India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photo: PTI

The move itself is a logical one, although, judging from its words and actions, it doesn’t appear as if the government has thought it through. And there is simply no explanation as to why Singh believed the change in policy had to be effected now.

Then, this government seems to have mastered the art of shooting itself in the foot. And so, even as the last rites of the retail policy were being performed, information technology minister Kapil Sibal called for a meeting with reporters on a public holiday (when ministers usually do not work; so he gets full points for industry) and spoke at length on the need to censor and monitor social media and websites. His comments were met with disbelief, disdain, chagrin and, especially on social media and blogs, with the ridicule they deserved.

One would expect a government repeatedly hammered by corruption scandals to lie low and focus on governance. One would have thought a government facing the twin challenges of reining in inflation and stimulating a slowing economy to expend efforts in that direction. And one would have expected a government weakened by in-fighting to think twice before saying or doing anything. The United Progressive Alliance has done none of this. It is hard to explain such behaviour.

Much of the trouble the government finds itself in over the allotment of spectrum to telcos in 2008 can be attributed to the Prime Minister’s reluctance to take ownership of the policy. His reticence has blurred the lines between the policy and its implementation and the result could be disastrous for the government. It could well be that this silence is prompted by a desire to be remembered by history as an honest man.

If that is true, then, his decision to change the country’s retail policy, despite knowing that it would face opposition even from within the coalition he heads, forcing its eventual withdrawal, may have been prompted by a similar desire to be remembered as a reformer—to the end.

R. Sukumar is Editor, Mint.

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