View: Where’s all the courage gone?

If the ruling party were truly confident of its political supremacy, it would take politically tough decisions to unshackle the Indian economy.

PTI
Are arresting a former Union minister for finance and keeping him in jail and serially raiding Opposition politicians to hunt for black money acts of courage or of vindictiveness?
The Maharashtra and Haryana elections would be a walkover for BJP, never mind all the economic pain — goes the consensus. It rings true, given the disarray within the Opposition. However, this air of being unstoppable, if it is real, should make India’s ruling party bold. But it is, in practice, timid, chary of any decision that might upset voters, even if it is desperately needed to reverse the economic slowdown.

Mouse-hearted politics cripples the power sector, messes up India’s agriculture, creating deep rural distress and tall mounts of excess grain, and keeps crippled the financial mediation system that transfers savings from those who save to those who invest.

Needed, Courage…

If the ruling party were truly confident of its political supremacy, it would take politically tough decisions to unshackle the Indian economy. Instead, it fights shy of actions harder than announcing yet another layer of pensions, some lovely tax giveaways, yet more subsidy for sugar exports, another dose of Dearness Allowance for government employees and a lending spree at the expense of public sector banks (PSBs).

What of the courage shown in removing Kashmir’s special status? After having created a majoritarian milieu and having won a comfortable parliamentary majority, does it take a lot of political courage to excite yet more majoritarian gloating? Sure, it took boldness to take the decision the government took on Article 370. Indira Gandhi, too, showed boldness in declaring Emergency in 1975.

The reaction of most parties of the Opposition save Congress, and even of Congressmen who choose to go with the flow rather than stand for principle, shows there was little political risk in taking the decision. Political courage is about taking decisions that could provoke a backlash, rather than trigger a celebration of majoritarian pride or a wave of gratitude for largesse.

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Where was the element of political risk in serenading Indian-Americans or an American president on his pre-election prowl for supporters? Is Pakistan-bashing at assorted fora a politically risky activity? It was arguably brave, perhaps, to swallow the bitter taste of betrayal left in the mouth by consistent Chinese support to Pakistan, while summiteering with Xi Jinping.

Are arresting a former Union minister for finance and home and keeping him in jail and serially raiding Opposition politicians to hunt for black money acts of courage or of vindictiveness?

Where have we witnessed a show of resolute political courage? In commencing merchant mining of coal so that India, with the world’s fifth-largest reserves of coal, does not need to burden its current account deficit with $20 billion worth of coal imports?

Four years after State monopoly in coal was abolished, not 1 kg of coal has been mined by professional private miners. When Coal India’s unions protested, the government simply backed off.

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Members of the Indian Administrative Service show dedicated professionalism when it comes to protecting their backside while performing public service. Releasing the payment to a contractor for work done for an arm of the government, one would think, is a simple administrative task. One would be mistaken.

…Not Grandstanding
No babu wants to take the risk of being accused by a future Vinod Rai of causing some notional loss to the exchequer. He would refuse to clear the bill. The contractor would take the non-payment to arbitration. The arbitration process would rule in favour of the contractor. The babu would still not pay. The contractor would take it to court. When the high court rules, a desultory half-a-decade later, in favour of the contractor, the babu — or rather, his successor, because the babu who should have made the payment would have retired in quiet contentment — would make the payment.
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He has played it totally safe, so what if the payment delay sent a few companies into loss and insolvency, and killed off a few small and medium enterprises in the process?

When the civil service obstinately stays in this rut of self-preservation at the expense of economic destruction, whose job is to break this vicious cycle? Where has the government shown the political courage to walk the talk on ease of doing business and pay promptly for the work done for it? The accumulated dues of state power utilities have climbed to Rs 72,000 crore, as of June-end, according to a report in this newspaper.

The simple reality is that no amount of financial engineering or false UDAYs can fix the power sector, unless the top political leadership finds the courage to tell people to pay for the power they consume, while insulating the very poor with explicit budgetary subventions that protect the utilities from the cost of political benevolence towards farmers and power thieves.

Agriculture is a mess with surplus stocks of sugar, rice and wheat, price spiking shortages (of onions) and persistent rural distress. Money that should go to investment is wasted in subsidy. Missing stable power in rural areas thwarts agro-processing. It takes political courage to fix morbid policy. That is in scarcer supply than clean air in the Capital.
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