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Economic priorities for the new government

May 06, 2009 10:33 IST
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India will have a new government, of some sort, in the near future. After four years of high growth, India's economy is also facing problems, including a slowdown in production and uncertainty about the overall financial outlook.

In this situation, it is only natural to ask: What should be the most important economic priorities for the new government?

I am glad that one of our reputed economists, Shankar Acharya, who writes regularly for this paper, has set the ball rolling by setting out his views on immediate priorities for the new government (Priorities for the new government, April 23).

As is to be expected, this is a perfectly sensible (and, of course, rational) list of priorities on which there can be very little disagreement across political parties, or for that matter, among economists and expert commentators in the media.

Shankar's priorities include measures to increase growth, investment and productivity; liberalise financial markets; and improve governance and urban infrastructure.

All this is very good and desirable. However, the question that I would like to pose is: Does it still make sense to talk of government as a collective entity which can adopt a programme and has the requisite authority to implement it?

For example, let us say that, with the approval of the Cabinet, the new government announces a plan to double infrastructure expenditure on roads, transport, power and shelter. Who has the power to implement this decision?

The authority to implement the Cabinet decision is likely to be that of individual ministers incharge of four or more different ministries at the Centre. A dozen other ministries are likely to be involved at different stages at the Centre and at the state level, in deciding what can and should be done.

What is crucial is to recognise that each of the four ministers of the principal ministries involved at the Centre may belong to four political parties from different regions with different priorities and different allegiances. If one or more of them do not implement the Cabinets decision, which minister can be held accountable?

Let us just look around. Even today, when we have the same government in office for an entire term, several individual ministers have a view on what the priorities of his or her ministry should be.

He or she can belong to the same Cabinet, but may have a different view on who should be the prime minister in the next government (even if it is led by the current principal party in the government).

A particular minister can continue in the present cabinet, but keep his or her partys options open on which front or combination of parties to join when the next government is formed.

Further, after the government is formed, the options to switch sides may still be kept open, or to  withdraw support if the circumstances warrant, or if there is a difference of views on a vital Cabinet decision (as indeed happened in July 2008).

It is widely recognised that multi-party coalitions are likely to remain a regular form of government in the foreseeable future. Thus, a different combination of parties may form the ruling coalition which comes to power after the counting of votes in the third week of May 2009. There are likely to be at least 20 different parties (as is the case now) which would need to be represented in the Cabinet.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with coalitions in a vibrant democracy like ours, nor with the number of parties, large or small, which form a coalition. What is wrong is not the numbers, but the unbounded powers available to individual ministers to do what he or she wishes to do without any accountability or responsibility.

Thus, chiefs of a crucial public sector entity (such as, the National Highway Authority of India) can be replaced three or more times during a year without any ostensible cause. Public sector and civil service posts can be kept vacant if the concerned minister so wishes.

Similarly, civil servants can be transferred or sent on leave by the minister or the chief minister for no apparent reason. Projects can be started or put on hold depending on the whims and fancies of the minister.

In this situation, which is likely to continue until further notice, does it make any sense to talk from the pulpit about the priorities of the new government? It is important to recognise that we will certainly have a government which is technically and collectively sworn into office. But we are unlikely to have a multi-party government which would have a unified national agenda and which could be implemented as a collective entity.

This is a basic and fundamental systemic change in the working of our parliamentary democratic system. As citizens, all of us have abundant reasons to be proud of our free and fair electoral system.

At the same time, it is necessary to think of ways in which the changing system of governance can work in the interest of the people as a whole.

Constraints of space do not permit me to go into the question of possible political reforms here (my book India's Politics: A View from the Backbench, Penguin 2008, has some suggestions).

What is urgently required are measures to reduce the power of individual ministers to implement policy decisions taken by the Cabinet, and confer greater powers on autonomous public agencies to take decisions on administration and implementation this could be along the same lines as, for example, the Election Commission in respect of elections and the Union Public Service Commission in respect of appointments in the civil services.

The author is a member of the Rajya Sabha.

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