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Whither reforms drive?

Whither reforms drive?
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There was no dull moment this week both inside and outside Parliament. In a manner of speaking, the Congress and its new allies in the Opposition...

There was no dull moment this week both inside and outside Parliament. In a manner of speaking, the Congress and its new allies in the Opposition should thank the motor mouths in the BJP and the extended Sangh Parivar. By insisting in the Rajya Sabha that Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone should intervene in the debate on L’affaire Conversions, they succeeded in their primary goal of putting brakes on the government’s reform march.

As an opposition party, the Congress is very much within its rights to haul the government on the coals. So are the Trinamool Congress, which has scores to settle with the BJP for the Saradha muddle it finds itself in these days, and the Marxists, who are still to recover from the rude shock the electorate had subjected them on the national scene. The TMC and the CPM have managed to overcome their bitter Kolkata rivalry, while the Janata amoeba of Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) displayed perfect coordination in cornering the government.

All this brightens the prospects of sleepless nights to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the days ahead, more so if the verdict in Jharkhand and Kashmir is not to the BJP’s liking.

However, it is patently wrong to say that the fragmented opposition is set to become a monolith. What is seen in Parliament is a unity that is pump primed by a sense of desperation. By listening to the counsel of strategists and ignoring the spin doctors in their ranks, the BJP and its mascot could have avoided exposing their feet of clay. Prime Minister Modi should have read the Riot Act to the loose cannons at the beginning of the winter session itself in his interest and in the interests of his government which was voted to power on the plank of development. The youth of the country had rallied round him, taken in by his promise of jobs and more jobs.

Whatever be the factors that have been at play, the reality is there are no jobs seven months down the line. Industrial production has not picked up and the Mint Street has not given up its fascination with inflation control. Supply-side economics determines prices that affect the common man, while the interest rate regime is something that affects the moneybags, who love to play with the investors’ money and with loans generously offered by banks. In a country like India, private sector is a myth. All ventures are afloat with money mostly drawn from banks and mutual funds. So much so, banking and market regulators should focus on how to make the private sector accountable for the money placed at their disposal. The easiest way is chocking fresh supplies.

It is essential to resist the temptation of offering lifelines to the likes of Spice Jet. The Maran Brothers have not milched their low-cost carrier in the way the Mallayas have done with Kingfisher. But they do not deserve any special treatment in a market place, which offers no free lunch. It is time for the banking regulator to come out of its Fabian mindset. A bad loan is a bad loan whether the culprit is a farmer or a businessman. There can be no two different yardsticks. If the “Farmers Debt Redemption Scheme” is bad economics by the Andhra and the Telangana governments, restructuring of loans defaulted by big business houses is equally bad economics.

By rechristening the bad debts as non-performing assets (NPAs), we have gifted a talking point to the economy managers with no corresponding relief to the banking sector. Dragging the defaulters to the Debt Recovery Tribunals is no way out either as experience has shown.

Frankly, the phenomenon of NPAs has something to do with the way elections are held in this country. As long as elections remain a hostage to money- power play, it will be difficult to break the nexus between the political class and the business houses. And we will have to remain content with one set of political players and business persons replacing another set.

Put simply, the crying need is electoral reforms, about which neither yesterday’s biggie, the Congress, nor today’s daddy, the BJP, is willing to walk the talk. This is despite the fact both parties find themselves at the receiving end of judicial and CBI activism on matters that range from coal block allocation to spectrum auctions.

At the head of UPA-II, the Congress did its best to re-open the disinvestment that the Vajpayee government had carried out. It was a tit-for-tat response when spectrum and coal scams broke out. Now both cases have come to haunt the Congress.

The CBI examined Palaniappan Chidambaram this week on whether as Finance Minster he had facilitated the controversial Aircel-Maxis deal to benefit the Maran brothers. Over the next week, the investigative agency will record a statement of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on whether he had gone out of his way to help industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Hindalco in getting coal blocks in Orissa's Talabira II & III in 2005. The then Coal Secretary P C Parakh, in his highly readable quickie, says the Birals were not given any undue favours and that the Centre had acted on the request of Naveen Patnaik government.

In its penchant for conspiracy theories, the CBI didn’t accept Parakh’s contention, and went through its drill only to reach the conclusion “The evidence collected during investigations did not substantiate the allegations levelled against the people named in the FIR (first information report)”. Yet, the agency could not satisfy the Special Court of its efforts, and thereby reopened the debate on Manmohonomics, 200 plus days after the former Prime Minister has gone missing from the headlines.

The exercise has the potential of heralding a new wave of administrative paralysis unless Narendra Modi puts in place a checklist for bonafide decisions by the bureaucracy. Well, it can be Version 2.0 of the Riot Act just read out to silence the loud mouths of the Parivar.

By: Malladi Rama Rao

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