Wanted: A Playmaker & A Team To Score Reform Goals

Updated: Dec 1 2002, 05:30am hrs
After observing the behaviour of political parties during the last few months, I have reached the sad conclusion that political support for economic reforms - real reforms - is shrinking. Every political party has taken a step backward on key issues. Reformers in every party seem to have taken a vow of silence. It is, therefore, not surprising at all that news about reforms have been pushed to the inside pages, and attract less attention than the antics of page-three fixtures.

The focal point of reforms is the finance ministry. The finance minister is - to borrow the language of football or hockey - the playmaker. It was so during the first phase, when Manmohan Singh occupied that office (1991-96). He would call the minister of commerce, law or power and urge them to take steps in tandem with the agenda that he had drawn up for implementation. Sometimes he would force their hands by making a policy announcement on behalf of the government. That tradition was continued during the United Front governments rule (1996-98). For example, the policy statements on disinvestment, the Navaratnas, dismantling of the administered price mechanism in the petroleum sector, the accelerated irrigation benefit programme etc were made, not by the minister concerned, but as part of the Budget speech.

Yashwant Sinha tried his best to steer economic policy, but he suffered from two drawbacks. The first was his stature within Bharatiya Janata Party and within the coalition government. Since other ministers enjoyed greater clout, many of his initiatives turned out to be damp squibs. Secondly, it seemed that he did not command the total confidence of the Prime Minister. From Day One, he was seen as Mr Vajpayees second choice for the job. Speculation about his transfer sapped his confidence. Since moving to the external affairs ministry, Mr Sinha has maintained a distance from all economic issues.

Jaswant Singh is in a class of his own. In 1996, he was happy to be appointed finance minister. In 1998, he was devastated when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh intervened to deny him the job. But, by 2002, things had changed. He had, for four years, enjoyed his job - some think too much - as foreign minister. He was happy to be seen in the company of presidents and prime ministers and foreign ministers, happy to be away from the country as often as possible and happy to speak in diplomatese on issues of little concern to the average citizen. Thus, when he was appointed finance minister, it was a reluctant Jaswant Singh who took up the responsibility.

After six months on the job, he is, in my view, still the reluctant finance minister. How else does one explain his refusal to meet any officer below the rank of secretary I gather that Mr Singh does not meet the chief economic adviser every day. (It is of a piece with another bit of information that I have gathered that the Prime Minister is not briefed everyday by the director of the Intelligence Bureau.) Mr Singh also travels little and does not, as a rule, grant interviews to the media. Nor can the media catch him on the sidelines of an event because he gives a wide berth to events. Recently, Mr Singh set a precedent of sorts by declining to address the Confederation of Indian Industry-World Economic Forum annual meeting. It was reported that he had cited parliamentary commitments as the reason, but we also saw a cute photograph of the minister at a polo match on the same day.

With every passing day, there is a new controversy. First, it was about divestment. Now it is about direct and indirect taxes. A few days ago, the labour minister made some incomprehensible remarks about reform of labour laws. The food minister has not been able to quell the rebellion on sugarcane prices - or spell out a policy. The textile industry is in the doldrums, but no one has seen or heard the textile minister in many months. The government has no policy on using the billowing forex reserves. Crucial questions have arisen as a result of the Securities and Exchange Boards investigations into Gujarat Ambujas purchase of shares in ACC and Grasims open offer to shareholders of L&T. Nobody seems to have thought through the consequences of the ill-drafted Securitisation of Assets law. While Unit Trust of India seems to have been bailed out temporarily, the fate of IFCI Ltd and Industrial Development Bank of India hang in the balance. No one is sure if value added tax will come into effect on April 1.

The National Democratic Alliance government is like a football team that kicks and passes the ball aimlessly while waiting for the referees final whistle. No attempt is made to score a goal, the object being to prevent a self-goal or a goal against the NDA side.

The Congress does not fare better in its approach to economic reforms. The party is suddenly discovering new virtues in the old order that, one had thought, the Congress had abandoned when it authored the story of economic reforms. The Congress now says it does not support privatisation of profit-making state-run units. Weeks into the debates, the party has not taken an official position on the Kelkar reports, sugarcane prices, APL (above poverty level) and BPL (below poverty level) prices that have put the PDS (public distribution system) foodgrain beyond the reach of the poor, on the bailouts of UTI, IFCI and IDBI and on a host of other current issues. On the Securitisation of Assets Bill, there were two opinions within the party, as a result of which the 100 or more amendments (some helpful) notified by the party were quietly withdrawn, and the Bill was passed into a law.

It is only the Left parties that make a lot of noise about reforms, but their voices, despite the compelling example of China, are raised against reforms. Unless there are broader, deeper and quicker reforms, the goal of 8 per cent growth will remain a dream. We need a playmaker and we need a team that is willing to go out and score goals.