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Stock markets' rise: A happy surprise!

Last updated on: May 21, 2009 09:18 IST

The stock market's euphoric reaction to the Lok Sabha election results reflects the happy surprise at the outcome as well as the high expectations that have been placed on the new government.

The prime minister's comments so far suggest that he is aware of the burden of expectations; indeed, during the election campaign, he spoke somewhat uncharacteristically about a 100-day agenda.

As for his comments to the Congress Parliamentary Party on Tuesday evening, he did not mention China, but there could have been no doubt as to which country he had in mind when he talked of the rapid growth achieved by East Asian economies.

The shrinking of India's strategic space because of China's continued outpacing of India on multiple fronts is of prime concern, and should be used to unite the country behind an agenda for action.

The task begins with Cabinet formation. The 'game-change' achieved by the Congress getting over 200 seats is that it need not be held hostage by its alliance partners, as the last government was.

The party leadership has therefore done well to become "backmail-proof" by lining up what is said to be unconditional support from erstwhile allies who had strayed during the elections -- like the Samajwadi Party -- and others like the Bahujan Samaj Party.

With assured support from more than 300 out of 543 members, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi know that the government cannot be pulled down by a recalcitrant ally or even two.

They can afford therefore to be more demanding when it comes to both competence and probity in the choice of ministers, so that the scandals associated with telecommunications, various transport sectors and mining contracts are not repeated. Dr Singh is a man of integrity; he should not tolerate corruption, now that he has no need to.

The first important signal of whether the next five years will be different from the last five will come therefore on Friday, when the new council of ministers becomes known. If there is evidence of a genuine break with the past, it will boost confidence in the future; if not, the stock market and expectations in general could subside as quickly as they have erupted.

The next step will be to meet as well as manage expectations when it comes to short- and long-term initiatives. Much of the government's work has to do with continuity, but there is plenty of room for displaying energetic action in areas like education, capacity-building in infrastructure sectors, and national security.

There is a large fiscal agenda (managing the deficit, adopting by next year an integrated goods and services tax, and moving to a less archaic form of budgeting), a serious export downturn to address, and room for allowing the investing public to own shares in state-owned enterprises.

Climate change and water management are urgent issues that merit 'mission' status so as to cut through the bureaucratic clutter. Labour law has been shown to be ineffective when millions have lost their jobs with little or no compensation, and therefore needs review.

A comprehensive social security system needs to be constructed, based on a national identity card system, with entitlements reaching their targets with minimum waste and fuss. India's problems will not all be solved in the next five years, but this is a moment that provides an opportunity to start afresh. It should be seized.

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