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PM feet in two boats
- Reform of govt on second-year agenda

New Delhi, May 22: On its first birthday, Manmohan Singh stuck a label to his dispensation ' “a caring government”. For the second year, he set among his goals reform of government.

“Our greatest achievement this past year has been to give the people of India an inclusive and humane government, a more representative government and a more caring government...(now) We must move ahead, we must focus on offering a more efficient government,” Singh said.

The Prime Minister’s so-called report card, a 42-page report, listed what his government considered to be its achievements during the year. But, more important, he narrated in his speech to his colleagues in the ministry and leaders of the United Progressive Alliance the challenges for the future.

Singh sought the support of the UPA constituents and the Left to pursue a much wider reform agenda in the coming year.

“The challenge before us is to combine the economics of growth with the economics of equity and social justice. We have no option but to walk on two legs,” he said.

He focused on reforming government, saying the task must get a higher profile in the government’s priorities.

The reform agenda must also include redefining the role of the state. Without talking directly of public sector divestment as he did a few days ago at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee, Singh said the role of the government would have to change from being a “provider of goods and services to being a regulator and facilitator ensuring fair play. The government should look more at building physical and human infrastructure”.

He called for bold initiatives in economic policy, which would have to include such measures as reduction of “wasteful subsidies” and restructuring of public finances. These measures would help the government support expansion and modernisation of physical and social infrastructure.

While this is the traditional argument for reforms, and often runs afoul of the Left, Singh also spoke of the “New deal for rural India”, which should please the CPM. He said Bharat Nirman, which he described as a business plan, and several other rural missions announced by the government would transform rural India.

The proposed employment guarantee act would address the problem of lack of jobs in rural areas. Sonia Gandhi, too, harped on this legislation in her speech, clubbing it with the women’s reservation bill as priorities.

The Left is unhappy that the government has not moved either of them.

Singh’s future challenges suggested more of the tightrope walking of the past year between the demands of reforms and the perceived need to be seen to be following policies intended to benefit the poor, an objective that has come to be identified with the Left.

Listing some more instances of this balancing act, Singh said while the goal of creating employment must be kept in sight, the climate for investment must simultaneously be improved.

Without referring to controversial labour law reforms, the Prime Minister said steps should be taken to create a more competitive environment for the organised sector. At the same time, workers’ interests in the unorganised sector must be protected.

If these are the ingredients ' often conflicting ' that go into creating “a caring government”, Singh could have another careworn year.

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