The Prime Minister says the slump in the economy is due to global factors over which he has 'little or no control.' If that is the case, he cannot claim credit for India's high growth during the UPA's first term in office. At that time Manmohan Singh's government was as paralysed as now. Yet there was high growth. P Chidambaram, the then finance minister, would say lawyerly that the effect was proof of the cause. High growth meant a government at work. It was nothing of the kind. India had risen with the global tide.
The UPA's tax and spend policies have come to haunt it. When the going was good, the government squandered money rather than invest it in income-generating infrastructure. Tax revenues leavened by an economy on the fly and efficiency in collections were used to waive loans to farmers, a year before the last elections.
When Chidambaram (otherwise a votary of fiscal rectitude) was told during the post-Budget press conference that year that with one stroke he had made all taxpayers' contributors to pay for the Congress party's election campaign, he retorted that the 'time has come to stand up and be counted.' Industry could be on 'auto-pilot,' Chidambaram told business chambers when they sought policy action. It was farmers who needed hand holding.
A government will be adrift when its ministers lack purpose. Except on the nuclear deal, the Prime Minister has taken the path of least resistance. In Pranab Mukherjee, we have a finance minister who has been a washout. Only twice in the past 13 years (excluding the year of financial meltdown) has the fiscal deficit gone so awry as last year. Mukherjee is good at winning friends but not in managing finances. His friendships might help embellish his career; they have done the government no good. He has not been able to charm the Opposition into supporting the goods and services tax. The many groups of ministers that he heads are devices for stalling, and evasion of accountability.
The ill-timed announcement of foreign direct investment in retailing and the welcome ceremony at Delhi airport for Baba Ramdev casts doubts on his political acuity. His office has also been the subject of salacious gossip. The Congress party would do the nation a favor by fulfilling his presidential ambitions.
The ministers who head the economic ministries do not belong there. Oil subsidies have driven a coach and four horses through government finances. The petroleum ministry needs a leader with the wits of a pickpocket. Small price increases frequently made would have passed unnoticed. Jaipal Reddy has the sensitivity of a tempest. How else can one explain the petrol price hike of Rs 7.50 in one shot? The man has no strategy. Reddy's predecessors were equal misfits. Murli Deora got embroiled in business rivalry. For Mani Shankar Aiyar, the ministry was a platform to flaunt his leftist credentials. Instead of exercising the mandate that the Cabinet had given him (to raise fuel prices within a range of 10 per cent of the mean of two moving averages), he promptly decided to consult the Communist parties and secured a veto!
In the power ministry, Sushil Kumar Shinde inspires little confidence. The ministry has been rudderless ever since the Shiv Sena unceremoniously pulled out the dynamic and honest Suresh Prabhu from Vajpayee's cabinet. As minister of state, Jairam Ramesh tried to stir things up during the UPA's first stint. It needs a mover and shaker now.
In the highways ministry, the standard set by Vajpayee's minister BC Khanduri is hard to match, though CP Joshi is more earnest and less controversial than either Kamal Nath or TR Baalu.
The railway ministry has seen a procession of Trinamool incompetents since Lalu Prasad, who had the good sense to entrust the running of the ministry to his officer on special duty Sudhir Kumar (now principal secretary of commercial taxes in Bihar). Dinesh Trivedi would have redeemed the Trinamool Congress's affinity for mediocrity, had he not crashed into party leader Mamata Bannerjee's towering egotism.
The civil aviation ministry seems to need Air India more than its employees do. Short of falling at the striking pilots' feet, minister Ajit Singh has done every bit of groveling. Unlike his predecessor Vayalar Ravi, Singh's DNA is not socialist. One wishes he had done a Satyam on Air India. To rescue the failed software company (after it was defrauded by its founder Ramalinga Raju), the government appointed a committee of wise men to nurse it back into shape for sale to the highest bidder. Sadly, the government has not shown the same concern for public money, which Air India is wasting.
Sharad Pawar, as agriculture minister, has been a sane voice cautioning against the extravagant promises of the food security bill, which seems to be food minister KV Thomas' way of ingratiating himself to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Pawar could have done much more but has punched below his weight. In the first term, he was more preoccupied with cricket than his ministerial responsibilities.
Jairam Ramesh, as environment minister, was a mixed bag. While dispelling the notion that environment clearances were an inconvenience that could be overcome with palm grease, he went over board with his 'no-go' policy of keeping certain coal blocks out of bounds. He also did immense damage to the genetic crop approval process pitting the scientific community against shrill environmental activists. He has done a better job as rural development minister by focusing on village sanitation, questioning the purpose of the rural jobs scheme, criticising the anti-development advice of Parliament's standing committee on the land acquisition bill and voicing support for reduction in fuel subsidies.
The only minister who has done justice to his ministerial responsibility is home minister P Chidambaram. He also did a splendid job as finance minister computerising the tax department and pushing the envelope on goods and services tax and the direct tax code. Otherwise, this is a Cabinet without conviction.