While big ticket legislative reforms can be ruled out, toning up administration can still help redeem this Government’s scam-tainted image.
The current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government has just one-and-a-half years to go before demitting office. Of this remaining period, the next few weeks till mid-December are likely to see it being preoccupied more by assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The ensuing Union Budget scheduled towards February end will be the UPA’s last full-fledged budget; the possibility of it treading the populist path is, therefore, quite high. Then, from May onwards and up to December, we have a series of polls to the assemblies in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir – States where the Congress itself has huge stakes and is, in all but the last one, directly pitted against the main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party. These, moreover, are only the run-up to the main Lok Sabha hustings in April-May 2014.
In short, there is a very narrow window – from about mid-December to end-February – for the Government to take politically difficult decisions, from raising urea prices to further rationalising petro-product subsidies. That, perhaps, is a reason to also not make too much of the latest Union Cabinet reshuffle exercise; for all the hype about the induction of ‘young’ Ministers, one isn’t sure of its utility now when the Government itself is closer to the end of its term! So, is there anything really to look for in the next 18 months?
While big-ticket reforms requiring legislative approvals can be safely ruled out, toning up the administration, however, still offers scope for bringing about greater efficiency and public welfare. For instance, it should be possible to get started on the direct cash transfer scheme even against the ‘Aadhaar’ cards that have been issued and whose holders are entitled to some subsidy payout, be it on their purchase of LPG or kerosene. Once these beneficiaries are in receipt of a cash payout credited to their account, they would shop around for procuring these in a hassle-free manner, paving the way for a parallel marketing infrastructure from the likes of Reliance or Shell. Delaying the launch any direct subsidy payout till 100 per cent Aadhaar coverage (or as close to it as possible) is attained is going to mean a wait longer than it takes for one of those ‘Saas-Bahu’ serials to end with the last episode being aired.
The Railways is another area where administrative commitment to get things going offers scope for the Government to redeem itself from a scam-tainted image. The Railways portfolio has for long been with regional parties, whose visions have extended rarely beyond plying new trains or starting divisional offices in their pocket boroughs. Now that the Ministry is back with the Congress, one would expect the Railways to serve a wider role, even as a catalyst for kick-starting investment activity in a comatose economy.