The Government should not crib about movements led by the likes of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev when it does not deliver on its promises.

One cannot quarrel with the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s assertion, in his Independence Day address, equating the country’s economic development with national security. This is all the more valid in the current circumstances — where investments in new projects have dried up, and a growth slowdown, coupled with persistent inflation, has eroded people’s purchasing power, breeding insecurity of a different kind. But unlike a Kargil War or providing for supplies or boosting the morale of troops stationed in the Siachen Heights, which are never matters of political partisanship, parties rarely show unity when it comes to dealing with economic emergencies. Manmohan Singh said almost as much while noting how an environment for restarting the growth engine was not easy to create “because of a lack of political consensus” on many issues affecting development processes. Hence, the need to view these “as matters of national security”.

While the Prime Minister’s observations are spot on, it still begs the question: Who is to blame? What is stopping his Government from reaching out to the Opposition and building the necessary consensus? Or, alternatively, call its bluff, especially over issues — unsustainable fuel subsidies, for instance — where a certain degree of candour is required. Both these require statesmanlike qualities, to inspire as well as tell in the right manner what the nation should know. This is precisely what great leaders do during wartime, to borrow PM’s own metaphor of national security for dealing with vexatious issues of economic policy.

Sadly, Manmohan Singh or, for that matter, the top leadership of the Congress — which, ironically, has more seats in the Lok Sabha than any party ever had, since 1995 and can hope for in the near future — has displayed little competence in this regard during the current tenure of the United Progressive Alliance. It is this sheer lack of focus on governance or the articulation of a vision, that has enabled the likes of Team Anna and Baba Ramdev to set the agenda and capture the public imagination. There is no point cribbing about the legitimacy of such movements, when the Government of the day does not adequately do the job that the people have entrusted to it.

That said, one must give credit to Manmohan Singh for not announcing any new populist measures that have become the standard fare in every Independence Day speech. It is good that instead of succumbing to such temptations in these politically beleaguered times — there was even some talk of a development programme to give away mobile phones free of cost to all below poverty line families — the Prime Minister has focused on strengthening existing initiatives. These included providing electricity to every household (as opposed to only the village) in India in the next five years, imparting skill development training to 8 crore people through a specialised agency with private sector participation, and making the Integrated Child Development Services programme dealing with malnutrition more effective. No right-thinking person can object to schemes that invest in people rather than shower wasteful sops.

(This article was published on August 15, 2012)
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