The present prime minister is without any doubt the potentially most qualified of the available candidates in his party to hold the office. A decline in the mood of confidence at least among some in the country is not a result of his leadership. The failure is political. It can be corrected despite the unnatural allies who have been joined together in this government.
The greed of Congressmen despite their mere 145 seats in the coalition has known no bounds. Their discards are made governors by creating vacancies for them. One observer said that many ministers were part of the “graveyard shift”, having been resurrected from retirement. Many have grown so old out of office that they have lost touch with the India of today. Retaliation for the boycott of the defence minister, George Fernandes, in parliament for two years was inevi- table. Swearing in of ministers chargesheeted with murder, theft and other crimes was a godsend for the opposition. These appointments could not have been this prime minister’s choices.
But India continues to shine for some, at least partially. Reserves are still rising and have crossed $127 billion. Growth continues, though the figures remain as unreliable as always before. The quarterly partially-audited corporate results being declared are universally good (except for companies in some segments affected by poor rural market demands like fast moving consumer goods). Exports are at high levels. The rupee is still a stronger currency than many others. The derided “India Shining” is not yet fully tarnished.
So why does the feeling of well-being that affected at least a substantial portion of the urban, especially big-city, middle classes, seem to be waning' Partly, it is because the election results brought the stark realization that a large part of the population, especially in rural India, has not benefited from the macro-economic figures: the boom in foreign-exchange reserves, the growing exports, the world-wide recognition of the quality of India’s knowledge workers, the rising level of our information technology businesses, the growth of high-paid employment on account of business outsourcing to India. Farmer suicides continue. Unfeeling political party workers and bureaucrats steal government largesse of free foodgrains and other support. Andhra Pradesh is the extreme example where the Telugu Desam is said to have bypassed the panchayats. But agriculture never received more than rhetorical attention and declining investment in annual budget speeches from every government including the Narasimha Rao government and all subsequent ones.
The bureaucracy is unable to deliver the substantial benefits that the legislatures sanction. Huge expenditures are shown for providing better health, nutrition, education, drinking water, roads, schools and so on, to the urban and the rural poor. They are partially spent, and large sums are surrendered at the end of the year. Of whatever is spent, a good part is stolen or reaches the untargeted. For example, subsidized kerosene for the poor has for long been substantially diverted to adulterate diesel to make it available cheap to truck-drivers.
Subsidized grains on the ration go to bogus cardholders. Government food-procurement inspectors certify sub-standard grains as good for a commission, and at higher prices. Doctors are absent from primary health centres where medicines are mostly not available. Schools remain half-built with non-existent teachers whose salaries are drawn, or teachers not appointed or absent from work. Poor delivery of services has been a chronic problem with the bureaucracy for very many years. It gears up only during emergencies like the Kumbh mela, immunization drives, famines or other short crises situations.
Neither Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and the miscellany of prime ministers who followed them, nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee have been able to solve the problem. Every government, like this one, has used strong language as to how it plans to correct the situation. None has succeeded in revamping the bureaucracy to set things right.
If none of this is new, why has a feel-good factor that affected at least a part of the population begun to wane in the last two months' No doubt there are new, adverse, uncontrollable conditions. The monsoon appears again to have failed in large parts of the country. Other areas have severe floods. The prices of oil products have risen sharply. Interest rates, an important reason for the improving corporate results, seem set to harden. Other prices are following suit and the spectre of inflation looms large.
But other intangible factors also made for the feel-good factor. India was no longer sermonizing the world. It was speaking from strength and in dignified language. Its responses were measured and moderate. Self-interest ruled its foreign policies. There were restrained talk and action from government even in the face of grave provocation from Pakistan; moderation in response to the abusive behaviour of world-powers, including camp followers like Australia, after our nuclear explosions; continuing overtures to Pakistan despite its duplicitous responses; and restraint when attacked in Kargil. We avoided (even accidentally) taking the battle across the line of actual control into Pakistan and prevented precipitating a larger war. Instead of an outdated slogan of non-alignment, we built relationships with the third world. A result was the effective response to the rich countries at the last World Trade Organization conference. But our preaching instincts seem again to be coming to the fore.
We displayed dignity in our foreign policy under the Vajpayee government and seem now to be losing it. We hardly hear our moderate and dignified prime minister on foreign policy matters. Instead we hear the grumpy and ill-tempered voice of a foreign minister who does not seen to have grown beyond the Nehru years. Boastful talk, trigger-happy verbal responses, harsh language, lack of bonhomie and the apparent loss of confidence in our relations with Pakistan seem to be obstructing prospects of a permanent peace.
That political authority does not seem to be with the prime minister. The president of the Congress has cabinet-minister status and spends government funds, but is responsible to neither the prime minister nor the parliament. Instead he seems to be subject to her authority. Her announcement of the ex gratia payment by the Central government after the Kumbakonam fire is a glaring example of the usurping of government authority by an extra-constitutional authority.
At the same time there is a failure of political leadership. Punjab, by repudiating past water agreements, is implicitly challenging the Supreme Court’s directive to the Central government to complete the canal by a given date. Any action by the Centre to enforce it has grave implications, especially in a state that has seen what was almost a civil war.
There is clearly an absence of political leadership in the Congress, even a failure. Warning about the Punjab assembly resolution should normally have come in advance to the prime minister from many sources, intelligence agencies, the party, ministers and others. So who was given the information and what was done with it' It is incredible that such a resolution was passed with no prior intimation to the party leadership and government. It is not surprising therefore that there is a sense of political drift. The political and administrative responsibilities of the prime minister are separated. People sense this dichotomy.
The problem is soluble. This separation of the political and administrative powers in the prime minister must stop. Ministers must have one boss — the prime minister. Chief ministers, especially of Congress-ruled states, must know that the prime minister is the one they must look up to, not anyone outside the government. Bureaucrats must not be scurrying to other persons to feed information about what the government is doing. They must remain in awe of the prime minister and his office.
The separation of the Congress presidency from the prime minister during Nehru’s time worked with some friction. But it was clear that the the prime minister was superior. This was also the case during the National Democratic Alliance government when the Bharatiya Janata Party president was not above the prime minister. Today’s Congress must accept the same relationship.