Rarely have I felt as sorry for the Prime Minister as I did last week when he supposedly reshuffled his Cabinet. I use the word supposedly because it was an exercise so pointless that we would not have missed it if it had not happened. And,yet to effect these few meaningless changes we saw the Prime Minister trot off to 10 Janpath for long hours of consultations with the woman who is our real prime minister. It is important to remember when we wring our hands over Dr Manmohan Singhs timidity that he has a boss and that Sonia Gandhi has the most enviable political job in the world. She has immense power without any accountability. Everything that goes wrong is blamed on poor old Dr Manmohan Singh who after a long and illustrious career in government will now end up being remembered as the man who failed to improve governance at a time when India needs it more than anything else.
We have a booming economy despite the insidious return of a licence raj. We have a middle-class that is bigger than the population of most countries and half of all Indians are under the age of 25. If we had a semblance of modern governance,we could overtake our old rival China in less than two decades. The Prime Minister knows all this but ever since he started his second term he appears to have decided to do nothing to improve the wretched lot of the vast majority of Indians who are poor,illiterate and living in sub-human conditions only because of bad governance.
More than anything,Indias vast population below the age of 25,needs good education and decent healthcare. Sickness is the main cause of rural debt and more than 80 per cent of Indians use private health services because public services are so appalling. The Health Minister has done almost nothing to indicate that he has understood the vital need for a new health policy that would address these grim problems. But,at no stage has the Prime Minister noticed that he needs to be booted out for his abysmal performance.
In education,we saw Kapil Sibal attempt to try and improve things but before he could come up with a new policy,he has been landed with additional charge of telecommunications. How can he possibly find time to come up with a new education policy when he is deeply embroiled in sorting out the 2G Spectrum mess?
A recent survey by Pratham reveals shaming statistics. Only half (53.4 per cent) of children in class V can read class II textbooks. So nearly all Indian children dependent on public education services leave school without being able to read a story. Pratham found that only 65.8 per cent of children in class I can count to ten. Even without these bleak statistics,it takes only one visit to any government school anywhere in India to learn that Indias children are not being properly educated despite the fact that teachers now earn hefty salaries. Things cannot improve without the Prime Minister acknowledging the need for a new education policy and this can only happen when he acknowledges the need for a full time Education Minister. A meaningful Cabinet change would have been to scrap the ministry of Human Resource Development altogether.
Infrastructure,urbanisation and agriculture are other areas that need an entirely new approach. If we do not invest heavily in building new roads,ports and railway services,we will continue to lag hopelessly behind China and most of Southeast Asia. If our cities continue to develop into vast slums (Mumbai and Bangalore are already halfway there) the best healthcare in the world will not prevent the spread of preventable diseases. This is without taking into account the increasing numbers that are moving from villages to urban centres. The social unrest that is inevitable requires a piece in itself as does agriculture reform.
What is the point in talking of these things though when we are not at all sure if we are being governed by people we elected or by people appointed by Soniaji to her privy council. Since the last general election we have seen the National Advisory Council take more decisions than the Government of India. It is to Soniajis private Cabinet that we owe almost every major policy decision taken in the past two years. This is why it is probably a waste of time criticising the Prime Ministers feeble attempts to stir the dead roots of his government with a reshuffle.
Extraordinary as it sounds,the Government of India has for the first time in Indian parliamentary history become irrelevant to India. We can only hope that the NAC recognises quickly that it needs to go beyond poverty alleviation programmes to matters of real governance. It could be our only hope.