This is not going to be about the Budget, but I shall begin by admitting that I was disappointed that the Finance Minister did not throw the retroactive tax into the nearest garbage bin. The caution he showed in handling a very stupid tax is worryingly symbolic of the caution our new government is beginning to exhibit in its decisions. Has the Prime Minister forgotten that it was a promise of change that created the wave that swept him from Gujarat to Delhi with a full mandate?
If he has not, he should start noticing that much should have already begun to change. The last government left behind a legacy of bad laws that should be immediately torn up and thrown away, to use the immortal words of the man who would have been prime minister if the election results had been otherwise.
Here is a short list. There is a land acquisition law that will make it impossible for the Prime Minister’s hundred new cities to be built. A companies law so bad that the finest corporate lawyers advise a total repeal. And, there is that food security law that will bankrupt India without achieving its stated goal of reducing malnourishment in our poorest citizens.
It is especially hard to understand why the government has committed itself to MNREGA. More than
Rs 2,00,000 crore have been spent on guaranteeing rural employment since 2006 and the biggest problem in rural India remains unemployment. Is that not reason enough to scrap this law? On my travels during the election campaign I made it a point to find out how MNREGA works on the ground, and can confirm that those who really need 100 days of guaranteed work a year rarely get it because corrupt officials and powerful castes lap up the funds. Had the money wasted on MNREGA been spent on improving schools and healthcare instead, India may today have been a very different country.
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It is not for nothing that people now speak of the past 10 years as India’s lost decade. It was a decade in which laws, policies and poverty alleviation were outsourced to a caboodle of bigheaded NGOs who forgot that the point of their existence was that they were non-governmental. Under the benign gaze of Sonia Gandhi, this gang of povertarians (thank you Shekhar Gupta for this word) became more important than the real prime minister and his Cabinet. None of the policies that emanated from this lot should be continued, so why do they continue?
Have the mighty mandarins of Lutyens Delhi succeeded in taking charge as they usually do of uncertain, unconfident new ministers? There are disturbing signs of this. And, this should worry the Prime Minister almost more than anything else because Indian bureaucrats are famous for being the most obdurate and obstructive in the world and they are famous for their skills in resisting change. They are especially good at squashing new ideas from germinating unless these come from ministers who know their subject well. It is beginning to become increasingly evident that most ministers in the new government are too diffident to demand real changes.
So everything depends on the Prime Minister. He will need a core group in his own office to implement the reforms that he knows are necessary if we are to get ‘maximum governance and minimum government’. He will need to personally supervise the abolition of dead institutions like the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. He will need to personally oversee the demise of useless procedures and paperwork that make governance in India more complicated than it is anywhere else.
Since I am in such a mood to give free advice this week, may I add that it is very important that the Prime Minister not lose touch with the people by allowing a wall of bureaucrats to come in between. Let him do what he does so well, which is speak directly to the people once a month or at least once every other month. If he begins this practice, it will enable him to explain why certain reforms are essential. With a media that remains largely hostile, he could find that unless he finds ways to remain in touch with those who voted for him with so much hope, there will be an army of people ready to mislead them into believing a lot of rubbish.
The reason why the end of the licence raj in the Nineties was made to seem like a gift only to rich Indians was because the prime minister never tried to explain why it was ended. Narendra Modi needs people on his side more than any other prime minister, because his Gujarat model has already been maligned by Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal as bringing benefits only for ‘Ambani-Adani’.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh