As the old gives way to the New Year, many perceive the period to be that of an ending, a closure. In fact, it ought to be seen as a new beginning, especially by a government that has a clear hundred days left in its tenure before the several restrictions imposed by the Election Commission. Extinguishing so many of the powers of a legally elected government that ought to remain unblocked in its activities up to the final day of office is incomprehensible in the context of the working of elected government in a democracy. However, along with other anomalies, such restrictions on the functioning of government after elections get declared are based on the colonial concept of the citizen as an individual easily swayed and therefore needing to be kept within a cloister set up by unelected bureaucrats. For it is a fact that in the world’s largest democracy, no Election Commissioner has ever stood for election to public office, such a role being confined to those who were or are members of the Civil Services. Despite the looming prospect of diluted authority even before the polls decide the composition of the next government, the Narendra Modi government has the ability to undertake several necessary reforms that would set the country on a high growth path. Accountability is critical in any such list. Those who have mercilessly abused the public good and the people’s trust to enrich themselves to the tune of billions of dollars need to be prosecuted and punished. Thus far, it is instructive to note that the record of the Manmohan Singh government in fighting VVIP (i.e. Central Ministerial-level) graft is better than the record of the present BJP-led government in this regard, which has yet to send any of the known depredators of the public purse to prison. While a few charge-sheets have indeed been filed, these have not been matched with documentation sufficient to convince the courts to permit even custodial interrogation of the accused. A former minister, in particular, has been able to convince the courts time after time to give him protection from arrest, thereby mocking the agencies that are engaged in uncovering wrongdoing. Whatever party they belong to and whatever position they hold or held, mega looters need to be prosecuted and punished with vigour at both the Central and state levels. Otherwise, a perception will gain ground that VVIPs are “too big to jail”, unlike ordinary citizens, who are unable to escape prison with the clearly visible ease of certain individuals known to have amassed wealth far beyond their recorded sources of income. Within the next 100 days, hopefully at least a few VVIPs will lose their immunity from arrest and imprisonment as a consequence of efforts by investigative agencies such as the ED and the CBI.
Transparency is another requisite of a healthy society, and in this, the progress made has been less than satisfactory. Orders need to get passed which make information retrieval far quicker and more comprehensive than is taking place. In particular, rather than be dominated as presently by former civil servants, a liberal dose of civil society activists should be included in the RTI boards. The reflex of many civil servants is to keep information from the public view and not reveal the same, and it is incomprehensible why the Manmohan Singh government ensured the dominance of civil servants in the newly-created RTI institutions, among the numerous UPA-era practices that the present government has retained. A tax framework conducive to growth through consumer demand and expansion of productive capacity is essential. In such a context, rather than saddle the economy with a Vote on Account, there should be a budget next month that reduces direct tax rates in the same manner as GST rates (many of which were unconscionably high) were just a few days ago by the GST Council. These necessary changes in rates were announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, whose ministry was responsible for the GST structure that was introduced two years ago. Likewise, regulations need a relook, and those that have been created only to create opportunities for bribes should be abolished. Thousands of the very talented are migrating to locations such as Singapore because they find it impossible to live and work in India, a country that in the view of international observers has one of the most dysfunctional bureaucracies in the world. This gargantuan and money-guzzling machine works 24/7 in order to make the rest of the country as dysfunctional as they themselves are, and the 300 million desperately poor citizens in India after seven decades of freedom show that they have succeeded. The administrative machinery needs reform, and the final hundred days of unfettered activity of the present government ought to be utilised to ensure such an outcome. The first hundred days of the Narasimha Rao government was sufficient to witness the bulk of the economic reforms which transformed India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to ensure that the final hundred days of the term in office that he won for the BJP in 2014 gets used to similarly put in place reforms and actions that are geared towards an India with a better future than the often less than impressive results of the efforts of past governments. This final period in the term of the present Lok Sabha should mark not the ending, but the beginning of a period of renewal and change for the country.