Indians or should I say Middle Class Indians were ushered into the new year of 2004 with a feel good factor spread by the “India Shining” campaign launched by the then ruling front – the National Democratic Alliance ( NDA ) or rather its anchor constituent the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ). The reasoning was quite simple. The NDA, whose term was to end in Oct 2004, thought that the time was ripe to call in early elections to cash in on the overall positive political climate. (It is said that the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee was not keen on this move and felt that there was still work to be done but eventually had to give in to the more vocal party strategists). The economy was booming, stocks markets were on a high, state election results were favourable, external affairs particularly relations with Pakistan was stable and more than everything the principal opposition the Congress was in a dilapidated state – reasons enough for this early calling of elections. So, if I remember correct from Jan in that year onwards for a few months we were inundated with the “India Shining” campaign across all media.
1991, when India was in the verge of bankruptcy was when we were introduced to “Reforms” – both Economic and Structural. While credit must be given to the architects of the Reforms 1.0 – Dr. Narasimha Rao, Dr. Manmohan Singh and their team, it is also not a secret that many of the items in that Reforms 1.0 were mandated by the IMF. In the period of 1999 – 2004 during the NDA regime, we saw what I would call as Reforms 2.0. Independent India for the 1st time had a full time minister for Disinvestment (Arun Shourie) who spiritedly fought his detractors to disinvest and unlock value in many of the Public Sector Units (PSUs) including the likes of Maruti Udyog, IPCL, VSNL,.. Petroleum Minister Ram Naik ventured into the now very sensitive area of dismantling the Administered Price Mechanism for Petrol whereby price of petrol will be decided by market forces rather than by the ministry. It was also the time when the Telecom read as Mobile revolution was slowly sweeping the hinterlands of the country. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that from governance point of view the NDA regime didn’t do a bad job and if one realizes that it was also a cobbled up opportunistic alliance with its own compulsions, Vajpayee did manage to do a great job.
To the shock of all pundits, NDA lost and UPA came to power. It was easy for all to blame NDA’s “India Shining” campaign for the defeat. However there was a larger issue – far reaching conclusions were arrived by the stake holders. Some of them were – ‘India Shining campaign’ is a metaphor for reforms. So that means if people rejected “India Shining” campaign, they rejected Reforms. Period. The political conclusion across the board was that the NDA was defeated because of the misleading “India Shining” campaign where the aam admi felt that he was not benefitted by the NDA rule while somebody else has. The fact of the matter is NDA lost not because of their “India Shining” campaign or the reforms which they pursued but in spite of them. While they swept the Hindi belt except Delhi, they lost the 2 important states in the South – AP and TN. AP because Chandrababu Naidu in his obsession with the IT and the chatter class hype was completely oblivious of the strides Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR) was making with his “Padyatra’ in the interiors of AP. In TN, BJP made the strategic error of listening to wrong advisors and allied with Jayalalitha and let DMK go off their alliance. These 3 states were enough to upset the electoral arithmetic.
This made the political class in both sides of the divide to firm up that reforms were never benefitting the poor. Since then reforms in India is not a 7 letter word but a four letter one for the entire political class whether the ruling front or the opposition.
The immediate fallout was that UPA –I with the Left supporting them outside decided to “Spend” for growth rather than “Invest” for growth. The govt. itself had a very limited reform agenda and even that was opposed by the Left.
One thought that in UPA-II without the Left and with a renewed mandate, the PM and his party-the Congress would be in a firmer wicket to push through reforms. However in UPA-II we see the spectre of Mamata who is blocking any supposedly reform initiative of the beleaguered government. The Left is having a last laugh today because Mamata is espousing what all they believe in and in that in a much more effective way! While Dr. Manmohan Singh risked his govt. while taking on the Left on the issue of the Civil Nuclear deal with the US during UPA-I, there is nothing of that steely nerve seen in pushing through reforms now.
And on the other side the situation is worse. The BJP still smarting under that defeat in 2004 opposes the same reforms which they introduced in their time whether it is the GST or FDI in retail or even dismantling the APM completely. Today while in the opposition it is clear that they are paying lip service to reforms!
I am glad that there is serious debate in the country regarding reforms today. However the political leadership across the board is not on board the Reforms bus. Under the scenario we need articulate political leaders to drive home the economical and therefore the political advantages of Reforms to their party men. Recently I saw Dr. Shashi Tharoor using the online medium to build consensus on reforms which should be commended. Similarly Yashwant Sinha though doesn’t speak well of the reforms in the parliament has been vocally articulating the need for reforms in his columns. Let more of this tribe emerge!
In spite of all this if “Reforms” still remains a bad word – blame it on that “India Shining”!
While on this, this piece from The Economist is a relevant read :
P.S: In a recent article in the Economic times, N.K.Singh, Ex Finance Secretary and now Rajyasabha MP wrote, “When I walked into the room of finance minister Manmohan Singh shortly after June 21, 1991, to congratulate him, he told me that “we will change India”.
Dr. Singh – India is waiting to see that change you promised Sir!