New Delhi, June 24: The most reclusive Prime Minister in living memory emerged on television today with a policy statement with the expected word of reform on his lips.
But if in 1991 economic reform was his primary agenda as finance minister, as Prime Minister in 2004 Manmohan Singh set as his priority the reform of government.
“The reform of administration and of public institutions to improve efficiency and the quality of delivery services will be our immediate priority,” he said in his first address to the nation.
With a bust of Gandhi on one side in the background and the Tricolour on another, set off by a vase of pink flowers and a potted plant, the Prime Minister said: “Economic reform is not only about freeing private enterprise from the shackles of bureaucratic control. It is also about making the government more effective, efficient and people friendly.”
In a long speech that kicked off with a saying of Gandhi and closed with a call to Indians to “recapture the spirit of idealism and self-sacrifice”, Singh returned time and again to the theme.
The emphasis may be a result of the lesson taught by the Indian voter in the last election where ruling regimes in states generally suffered a debacle, suggesting anger at the quality of governance.
Singh admitted that the government was neither adequately equipped to meet people’s aspirations nor responsive.
“Much of the focus of economic reforms in the past decade has been on reducing the role of the government in controlling the private sector.… This was necessary. Yet, there are many areas, critical areas, that directly affect the quality of life of every citizen, where the government has a role,” he said.
“These include the provision of social and physical infrastructure for development, the provision of elementary education and public health, providing drinking water and sanitation. They also include economic infrastructure…. In each of these areas, at every level of governance, the reform of government is today an urgent task before us.”
The Prime Minister’s aides said discussions had already begun to explore the possibilities of such reform.
Former central vigilance commissioner Bhure Lal said: “It is time the government gives serious thought to this issue. I am happy Manmohan Singh realises the importance of having an efficient delivery system.”
The delivery system referred to is the mechanism through which the government offers administrative services or health and education facilities.
In health and education, his address reaffirmed the objectives of the ruling alliance’s common minimum programme. Much else of the speech was reiteration of this agreed agenda with emphasis on infrastructure development and agriculture. A lot of the rest, such as foreign policy and defence, carries the stamp of continuity.
If there was any expectation about indications to the broad thrust of the upcoming budget, Singh did not provide any, except to say: “We will pursue economic reform and widen the space for individual initiative and enterprise.”