It’s time to refocus on the economy

It’s time to refocus on the economy

By Dhiraj Nayyar | 25 July, 2015
A strong economic performance will still bail out the Central government from its ministers’ indiscretions.

It must be terribly frustrating for the BJP to watch helplessly as the Congress and sundry Opposition parties disrupt Parliament and stall governance so early in its five-year term. After all, it was just over a year ago that the people of India declared in no uncertain terms that they deemed these very parties totally unfit to govern India. The fact is this: an unreconstructed Congress, which has no credibility on fighting against corruption, remains unfit to govern India.

The moot point is this: why has the BJP presented, in such rapid time, an opening in the door for a discredited Opposition to put its foot in? After all, in its first term between 2004 and 2009, the UPA had managed to fend off serious Opposition until the final months, despite several minor and major scams, ranging from Natwar Singh's oil-for-food involvement to Dayanidhi Maran's and A. Raja's telecom shenanigans.

It would seem that the BJP has failed to understand that there has been a paradigm shift in India's tolerance for political wrongdoing. The Anna Hazare-led civil society movement against corruption may have eventually fizzled out (or morphed into Delhi's regional party AAP), but it permanently altered the public's threshold for political misdemeanours. Ironically, Narendra Modi's (and by default BJP's) spirited campaign for the 2014 elections reinforced the new perceptions. The BJP ought to have realised this.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj should have stepped down, or been asked to step down, the moment Lalitgate became public. It would have taken the wind out of the Opposition sails before it could launch. In its first term, the UPA was more nimble — it asked the tainted Natwar Singh to resign and minimised damage.

Of course, nothing is permanent in politics. Swaraj could have rejoined government some months down the line once it became obvious that her transgression was minor.

If Modi had acted against Swaraj, he would have found it easier to deal with Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Chouhan — he could conceivably have argued that he had no authority to sack CMs, but that he acted against a member of his own Cabinet. Instead, Modi is left with a stalled government. Was it worth the price?

Perhaps, but to prove that right, Modi's government must now make a superhuman effort — lacking thus far — to transform the economy. More than ever, the fate of Modi's government is tied to a strong economic recovery — a booming economy will likely paper over the indiscretions of some of its leaders. A stalled Parliament makes that task harder, not easier, with crucial legislation on land and the goods and service tax pending approval.

However, it is possible for the government to press ahead with serious economic governance even with a stalled Parliament.

The performance of three ministries holds the key: Railways, Roads and Highways and Power. Their performance (or non-performance) touches the lives of most Indians.

The Railways needs to get down to spending, quickly and wisely, the huge resources that have been put at its disposal in the government's public investment push. Better stations, faster trains, cleaner toilets, healthy food are genuine vote winners. The ministry needs to speed up its work and adopt some of the recommendations of the Bibek Debroy Committee. Roads is one ministry where some progress is being made, but for a transformational impact, speed and scale need to be increased.

The challenge in power is more complex, because the cooperation of states is needed. The single biggest problem of India's power sector is defunct state electricity boards. The Centre needs to find a solution for their bankruptcy, so that they are in a position to buy and supply electricity. All the three ministries are headed by competent ministers — Suresh Prabhu, Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goel.

Much of their work doesn't need Parliamentary approval.

The fate of a besieged government depends on these gentlemen proving to India's public that they can deliver the goods, despite the obstacles, despite the opposition.

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