Over the past nine Independence Days, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken often of the list of welfarist measures that his United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has promised to deliver. Some of them have become a reality, and are now being expanded. This year, for instance, he spoke of the National Rural Health Mission, while there are also several other measures that have taken very long to get off the ground — such as the attempt to improve the skills of India’s young people. But the economic growth that underpins such giveaways has always been presented as an achievement, rather than as a promise. That this is a mistaken approach has been made clear by the fact that, with high growth vanishing, the UPA is finding it difficult to break out of the template of welfarism that it set for itself. True, Dr Singh did begin his speech this year by speaking of the slowdown of the economy, referring to 6.5 per cent growth last year, and that he had only “hope” that it would grow faster this year. But what was revealing was that the remainder of his speech did not depart from the tradition of outlining giveaways. Even the response to high inflation that was outlined focused on extra diesel subsidies for farmers, rather than on reform of the supply chain of agriculture.
It is clear from this speech that Dr Singh has some appreciation of the urgency of the situation. He said, in fact, that the economic slowdown should be thought of as a national security problem, saying that India needed to ensure “new investment in the economy, improve the management of Government finances and work for the livelihood security of the common man and energy security”. Nobody can take issue with this list of priorities. However, the question remains: why not then outline what can be done on each of those priorities in the speech? Instead, Dr Singh merely said that “creating an environment within the country for rapid economic growth” is difficult because of “a lack of political consensus on many issues”. Yet blaming the lack of political support – including in his own alliance – is no longer enough. Would the government blame politics even in the national security crisis to which he compared this slowdown?
This Independence Day speech was a lost opportunity to, in fact, help create the political consensus for further growth. Instead of focusing on the laundry list of welfarist provisions – which voters already know and expect from the UPA – Dr Singh should have laid out how his government intends to create the economic conditions necessary to keep financing those provisions. Independence Day speeches, it is true, tend to be biased towards big ideas. Nobody questions the UPA’s ability to produce big ideas; what is questioned is its ability to make even minor administrative fixes. Dr Singh, instead of once again rehearsing the list of the UPA’s big welfarist ideas, should have explained why less glamorous, and more painful, reforms are necessary to keep the big ideas coming.