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Will Dr Singh's dream team deliver?

By Sunil Jain
May 25, 2009 10:35 IST
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Forget the first 100 days spiel about what Dr Manmohan Singh will do to kickstart the economy. That's just media hype and, in any case, the economy's on a recovery-path. As has been seen over just the last few days, despite the Congress getting 206 seats in the Lok Sabha and getting support letters from 100 more Members of Parliament, Dr Singh still hasn't been able to form his government -- just 19 ministers were sworn in with him and, a day later, portfolios could be announced for only six of them.

Given that Dr Singh needs just 272 seats, you wouldn't think he'd need the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam's 18 so desperately (and it has just four seats in the Rajya Sabha), yet the Congress party sent an emissary to meet DMK chief M Karunanidhi after the talks in Delhi collapsed and Dr Singh's already on the record saying he has no personal problems with DMK ministers like A Raja and TR Baalu.

Makes you wonder a bit considering that, apart from aviation and petroleum, the only other ministers that brought disrepute to Dr Singh's government the last time around were those headed by DMK ministers such as Raja and Baalu -- Raja gave away telecom licences to a handful of favoured firms for a whopping $10bn (Rs 47,000 crore at today's exchange rates) less than their actual price, and Baalu's inexplicable ways made sure the very efficient highways-building programme of the National Democratic Alliance years ground to a very rapid halt.

But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that the problem was Raja-centric, that he did what he did in the telecom ministry, or in the environment ministry earlier, without Karunanidhi's blessings -- if this was so, he'd have been out by now.

Sleeping with the DMK may be realpolitik on Dr Singh's part, but it also tells you that he's going to have anything but a free hand. (Dealing with allies has always been a tough thing and most would remember that, during the NDA years, when Maruti was to be sold off to Suzuki, Shiv Sena minister Manohar Joshi simply refused to sign the file and it took several months of more than gentle persuasion for the government to get around his opposition.)

What of the other moves Dr Singh's made, of the Cabinet ministers he's sworn in and, more important, not sworn in? The fact that Arjun Singh is finally out of the Cabinet is certainly very good news. Both the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance have handed this vital ministry to the worst possible ministers in the past, so we should hope Dr Singh will give this ministry to a more modern and efficient minister.

Given that optics also count for something and that the minister has to be seen to be progressive, you may just have someone like Kapil Sibal getting the ministry -- even the inefficient Met department got good press each time Sibal announced some new initiative from it! (Given the view that the Muslims have finally come back to the Congress fold, watch out for whether the Sachar report's suggestions like linking UGC grants to 'diversity' start to get implemented.)

The fact that First Family Faithfuls like Hansraj Bhardwaj have been kept out also suggest the government is embarrassed by the bad press it got from Bhardwaj's decisions, which helped Bofors-accused Ottavio Quattrocchi walk away with his money -- nother way of looking at it is that, now that the deed's been done, dropping Bhardwaj will look as if the government is very serious about its image! In which case, it will be a good idea to also get a new Attorney General as well as a new Solicitor General.

Mamata Bannerjee is unlikely to be as efficient a railway minister as Lalu Prasad was, and a situation where the economy is not booming as it was in the last five years is likely to make this clear in a pretty short time. It would be interesting to see if the privatisation programmes that got stalled/derailed during Lalu's period -- privatisation of the New Delhi Railway Station and the diesel and electric locomotive plants, to name just a few -- will be revived.

Pranab Mukherjee as the finance minister is a curious choice and perhaps is the best indicator of where the government's going. His last big experience with the ministry was in the early 1980s, when the only liberalisation that happened was in favour of a few industrialists -- this may have still been alright then given that there were few Indian industrialists apart from the late Dhirubhai Ambani who even dreamt big and when there were few foreigners who wanted to enter the Indian market, but it is certainly not true today.

And while it is true Mukherjee headed around 50 Groups of Ministers in the last UPA government and is therefore its Mr Crisis in many ways, the GoMs he has chaired haven't always distinguished themselves with their recommendations. Some have blatantly played favourites.

It is true that, in the past, the most unlikely of ministers have delivered. Yashwant Sinha turned out to be a good finance minister and despite his royal disdain for the nitty gritty, Jaswant Singh managed to set the stage for a genuinely modern and efficient tax system. Even so, it would be nice to have, at the helm, a group of men and women who inspire confidence and trust by their very presence. The trust that the support of 300-plus MPs in the Lok Sabha demands.

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Sunil Jain