Column : A lethargic 100 days for UPA II

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: Sep 1 2009, 03:41am hrs
UPA II completed 100 days on August 29. August 29 has been important in Soviet history. USSR exploded an atomic bomb on August 29, 1949 and followed it up with a hydrogen bomb on August 29, 1953. Much later, on August 29, 1991, USSR suspended communist party activities. UPA-I was hamstrung by the communist parties. With communist parties suspended in UPA-II (DMK and Trinamool are different), UPA-II will have produced big-bang bombs in the first 100 days and one doesnt mean the one that exploded in Sharm el-Sheikh. One rather means the wonderful statements of intent outlined in the Presidents address to Parliament on June 4, 2009. So runs a popular, but implausible hypothesis. First, if UPA-I had little to show in its five years, it was unlikely that big-bang reforms would happen in 100 days. (Actually, the schedule was 45 days for the Finance Ministry.) Second, most reforms, especially when they involve states, require more than 100 days. Third, there were plenty of reforms UPA-I could have introduced, without Left getting in the way. 100-day agendas were nothing more than PR and marketing, and not particularly good ones. With BJP and CPM both imploding, there was nothing to prevent UPA-II from getting on. UPA-II had nothing to fear but UPA itself.

The world is still charitable towards UPA-II. So the charitable hypothesis will incorrectly deduce that government has been derailed by drought, price rise and swine flu and allies like DMK and Trinamool. Add to this another charitable hypothesis that the NAC (National Advisory Council) has been defanged and we need it to drive reforms, like under UPA-I. Both NREG and RTI were ascribed to NAC. We have 33 Cabinet Ministers, 7 ministers of state with independent charge and 38 ministers of state. At the very least, we should have expected 33 (if not 40) 100-day agendas to be formulated. In passing, notwithstanding Mrs Gandhis exhortations, most MoSs without independent charge dont know what they are supposed to do, since their seniors havent delegated. How many 100-day agendas did we get To the best of my understanding, only from Ministries of Agriculture, HRD, Minority Affairs, Rural Development and Law. Finance didnt produce a 100-day agenda, but one could argue its agenda was implicit in the budget. In addition to agendas, some ministries (especially in infrastructure) were supposed to produce 100-day targets. They havent botheredpower and coal being two prominent examples. That shows how seriously we should take 100-day agendas and first 100 days of UPA-II.

On specifics, not vague generalities from Presidents speech, unique identity card will no longer be unique. Nor will it be mandatory. Consequently, Nandan Nilekani is unlikely to do a Sam Pitroda. The Rural Development Ministry wont accept this ID, nor will it accept Planning Commissions poverty figures. Revamping of NREG is stuck, with proponents of the original NREG protesting at civil society exclusion. The National Food Security Act has been pushed back. Opposed by Congress and Cabinet, Kapil Sibals 100-day plan has been reduced to a right to education legislation, plus whatever little he can do through CBSE and assorted medical councils. Land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement are on hold. There may be 50% reservation for women in panchayats, but one-third in Parliament is stuck. The PM and the Law Minister have talked about judicial reforms. But the law ministrys agenda was reduced to an inquiries bill and an asset and liability bill. After having made a hash of it in Parliament, these bills might be enacted in the winter session. However, one should read Presidents speech carefully. A roadmap for judicial reforms was promised in 6 months, not 100 days.

The Presidents speech also mentioned, A Delivery Monitoring Unit in the Prime Ministers Office to monitor flagship programmes and iconic projects and report on their status publicly. Great idea, but no one has publicly reported on status of the delivery monitoring unit itself and the person for whom this post was created has moved on to pinker pastures. Some deal has been done with the US on Doha, but the details are unclear. India may get credit for hosting a Mini-Ministerial and being more flexible. Roads have also picked up steam. There has been some action in Finance too, with GST promised, a reform-minded direct tax code and creeping disinvestment, notwithstanding problems with the National Investment Fund. If one leaves out Finance, the 100-day record of UPA-II has really been a KKK one. Not the one Jaswant Singh meant, but Kapil-Kamal-Khursheed. Some relatively younger ones have shot their mouths off (with tigers and without them) and others have tweeted. Thats not a great record for first 100 days. But what did one expect This is UPA-I, with only the bumper changed. It will bump along and there will be drought, inflation and swine flu to blame, with no credible opposition in position.

The author is a noted economist