The Prime Minister makes it clear whenever he speaks that he understands well the need for urgent changes in governance and laws. He talks of ending “inspector raj” and repeats that the government has “no business to be in business”. But his ministers either do not understand what he is saying or do not understand the need for urgency.
This week, in which the whole country worshipped the Goddess of Wealth, is an appropriate one to talk of changes that should already have happened if we want the economy to start growing again at more than 8 per cent. It is a good week to remember that Narendra Modi was given a full mandate because Indian voters wanted radical changes in the way things are. And yet, not even baby steps have been taken so far to rid us of bad policies inherited from the Sonia-Manmohan government.
An example. Every time Arun Jaitley gives an interview, he admits that the land acquisition law bequeathed us by Sonia Gandhi makes it impossible for even private buyers to buy land. He admits that land cannot be acquired easily even for purposes of national security, but instead of ridding us of this misguided law, he announces only plans to tweak it. Has he not noticed yet that tweaking bad policies will get us nowhere near the ‘parivartan’ that the Prime Minister wants? Has he not noticed that investors continue to shy away from investing in big infrastructure projects because, on the ground, they notice no real changes? Not even in a bizarre companies law that gives officials more powers of interference in routine business matters than ever before.
The Prime Minister has repeated often that he believes the government has “no business to be in business”, but his ministers are not listening.
From the Finance Minister’s junior colleague, Nirmala Sitharaman, there have been so many angry statements against private companies that she is beginning to sound like a Marxist professor from JNU.
Most ministers show no signs at all of making the big reforms that are needed desperately if we want India to come closer to developing her enormous potential for being a rich country. They show no signs even that they understand that India counts among the poorest countries in the world because of bad economic policies. Labour laws prevent jobs from being created instead of doing the opposite. But again, they are only being tweaked. India imports vast quantities of coal despite having the largest reserves of this vital resource, but instead of a new policy for coal mining, we get just a bit of tweaking.
As someone who believes that India’s biggest failures have been in the social sector, I wait eagerly for some sign of new policies in healthcare and education. Indians who can afford private schools and hospitals today have world-standard facilities available to them. But those Indians who are forced to rely on government schools, colleges and hospitals know that their children will leave school without learning to read a story or count. And, that if a family member gets sick, his chances of dying in a government hospital are better than his chances of getting well. Yet the Minister of Health has shown no sign that he is in the process of giving us a new health policy and the Minister of Human Resource Development has so far failed to grasp the importance of her job.
Even if investment picks up, even if the stock market soars to new heights, India will remain a backward country as long as we have abysmal standards in public healthcare and education. Skills development is something we hear a lot about since Modi became prime minister, but we need much, much more to be done in education. It is terrific that the Prime Minister has laid so much emphasis on sanitation and public hygiene but what about spreading this message in government hospitals as well.
On the political front, the Prime Minister has been remarkably successful. The results from Maharashtra and Haryana prove that he has lost none of his appeal, but in the end what will bring real ‘parivartan’ are his policies in the economic and social sectors. The two are closely linked. I do not usually quote other people to make my point, but cannot find words more appropriate this time than those of Kemal Ataturk from 1923 when he was rebuilding Turkey from the ruins of the Ottomon Empire — “No matter how great they are, political and military victories cannot endure unless they are crowned by economic triumphs”.
The Prime Minister should remember them because, in more senses than one, he is trying to rebuild India from the ruins of a socialist empire that in its fashion was as feudal as empires ruled by kings. The task is difficult, so tweaking will not do.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh