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Fifth Column: Wasting a mandate?

While the Prime Minister talks about “minimum government”, his ministers seem not to have understood what this means.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: September 21, 2014 12:06:45 am
modi-480 In the first hundred days of the Modi government, what has changed is the country’s mood.

Three words that should worry the Prime Minister more than the bad by-election results are: nothing has changed. I hear them everywhere and most of all from businessmen who have been Narendra Modi’s biggest supporters ever since he first showed that Gujarat welcomed investment. So, when he now says the same thing for India and announces that there will be a ‘red carpet’ instead of ‘red tape’, why are they not convinced? Well, because nothing has changed. Not even the bad laws and policies that brought India to her knees and halved the growth rate in the last three years of the Sonia-Manmohan ‘welfare state’.

Here is a short list of policies that should already have been thrown into history’s dustbin. The retroactive tax. Tax terrorism. The land acquisition law. The companies Act. And visa restrictions that make it impossible for foreign travellers to enter India more than once in two months. This illogical restriction was imposed with David Headley in mind but without noticing that most jihadi terrorists come to India without visas.

The Finance Minister admitted at a recent Indian Express Adda that the land acquisition law made land acquisition impossible even for defence purposes. But the government seems to have no intention of making major changes without a “consensus”. Why? The BJP has the first full mandate to rule in 30 years. Would it not be simpler to admit that under the Sonia-Manmohan government, the BJP wrongly supported a lot of very bad laws because of their populist nature, and that it is time to rid India of them? My knowledge of the new companies law is limited, but those who are affected by it tell me that it allows so much government interference in routine business that it makes doing business very difficult.

While the Prime Minister talks about “minimum government”, his ministers seem not to have understood what this means. So his Minister for Human Resource Development has encouraged the UGC, which is the Planning Commission of higher education, to meddle in matters that should be the business of university officials. The minister herself shows no sign that she understands that she needs to dismantle a licence raj, not impose it more strictly.

On a daily basis, ministers handling vital economic portfolios speak of more controls and regulations. They appear to have forgotten that Modi managed to get a full mandate because people want change, not continuity. And because ordinary Indians believed that he would bring back investors and revitalise a job market that dried up in recent years because of vindictive, ill-conceived polices and laws. In the first hundred days of the Modi government, what has changed is the country’s mood. But economies do not grow on optimism and good intentions, they grow from good policies. Of these there are few signs.

The Environment Minister has been generous with handing out permissions but has not yet announced the formulation of measureable norms. If he did, the ministry would play the role of the regulator it is meant to be, and the danger of it becoming the licence raj it was under the last government becomes minimised. Objective, measureable norms would automatically reduce chances of bribery and corruption and allow the minister to concentrate on more serious problems like river pollution, urban squalour and the reversal of bizarre rules that impose coastal zone restrictions in cities like Mumbai that rise directly out of the sea.

In the Prime Minister’s defence, it must be said that his choices were limited. Far too many of his ministers are men and women whose political careers rose out of the TV studios of Delhi and not out of political movements. But this means that Modi needs much more than other PMs to play a bigger role in making policies than he has so far. Leftist political pundits and Congress spokespersons spread it around from day one of his government that Modi would run India like he ran Gujarat, as “a one-man show”. If only this lie were true.

The truth is that it is because the Prime Minister has been so occupied with external affairs that on the domestic front his government has very little to show by way of “parivartan”. The first hundred days of a new government are when real policy changes can happen, as P V Narasimha Rao demonstrated when he became prime minister. This may only have happened then because India was so broke that the choice was between opening up the economy and pledging our gold reserves. The economic legacy this Prime Minister inherited was nearly as bad. So he needed at the very least to discard stupid policies like a food security law that seeks to distribute cheap food grain to nearly every Indian, rich or poor. Time to come home Prime Minister. And, stay a while.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh

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