Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure as finance minister has not been a success. Growth expectations have fallen by a third; inflation is still not under control; and government spending has not really been pruned. It can reasonably be argued that none of this is Mr Mukherjee’s fault; that clearing supply-side bottlenecks requires co-ordinated action by the whole Cabinet, with their parties’ wholehearted support. This is true; but managing the fallout of an inability to fix bottlenecks is a finance minister’s job, and Mr Mukherjee failed to do so. Indeed, as the past year’s crisis intensified, so many of his ministry’s moves were public-relations bungles that the problems were made significantly worse.
Behind Pranab Mukherjee’s desk at his house hangs a big, sepia-tinted picture of Indira Gandhi. The tendency of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress to venerate even the most foolish decisions and dangerous instincts of her mother-in-law is well known. But Mr Mukherjee was the most Indira-Gandhian (Indiran?) of ministers — which became even more of a problem over the past few years of crisis. For what elevated Mrs Gandhi from the ranks of leaders who are merely bad to the exalted levels of those truly terrible was her reaction to crisis: a horrifying spiral of denial, blame and clampdown.
In this government’s handling of the economic and political crisis that began with the 2G report, the Gandhi Gambit has been on display several times, and it has performed its assigned task of making things immeasurably worse. In dealing with the impact of a slowdown in growth on his fiscal projections for 2011-12, Mr Mukherjee first denied there was a problem; then blamed Greece, and investors, and (more softly) colleagues in government; and finally slammed down with measures empowering the revenue administration that harked back to his halcyon days heading the department in Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. In the capital’s stunned response, and its decision to sit on its hands (and its piles of cash) instead of investing, the disastrousness of such thinking has been once again exposed.
Where – and who – now, therefore? In spite of large amounts of wishful thinking all round, midterm polls don’t seem to be a possibility. UPA-II has two years yet to run, and it has domestic and international crises to deal with, which will need someone at the foreign ministry whose thinking extends beyond asking themselves: What Would Indira Gandhi Do?
I am old-fashioned enough to believe that the surest guide to someone’s thinking is what they say — and not, as most in New Delhi apparently believe, wild guesses about their intentions as visible in their actions. By that modest standard, the only member of this current Cabinet who appears to have outgrown Indira-Gandhism is the prime minister, who has at least said the right things while his government does all the wrong ones. That he is taking over Mr Mukherjee’s job, however temporarily, can thus be counted as a good thing. Certainly, the Congress’ other “reformists” have been tremendous disappointments. P Chidambaram has shown, in the home ministry, a worrisome tendency towards control and intolerance of disagreement, especially from state governments; Kapil Sibal has demonstrated, in the three sectors that he has taken charge of and comprehensively ruined (telecom, higher education, and cyberspace), the link between statist instincts and gross inefficiency; and after his glib, power-grabbing tenures at the environment and rural development ministries, it is obvious that Jairam Ramesh has more in common with Indira Gandhi than his hairstyle.
Yet Dr Singh’s additional responsibilities will extend to more than cleaning up Mr Mukherjee’s public-relations mess at the finance ministry. It must involve, also, inheriting Mr Mukherjee’s de facto stewardship of all the policy matters that were being handled by the innumerable groups of ministers (GoMs) that he headed. In other words, by becoming a finance minister in addition, Dr Singh will now have to show the genuine leadership that is expected of the Prime Minister’s Office. Most of us are uncertain whether, at the end of 20 tiring and disappointing years in politics, he has the stomach for it.
Whoever inherits Mr Mukherjee’s role at his ministry and as lynchpin for GoMs has to keep in mind the three differences between India today and in Mrs Gandhi’s time. First: capitalists can neither be forced into action, nor will they stay silent. They will send money abroad, and they will speak out against you, further damaging your electability. Second, given its numbers, this is perforce a government by consensus, rather than the semi-presidential one that India has had for most of its history. Dr Singh’s much-criticised, cautious, approach to his Cabinet actually does appeal to me as suitable for this drastically altered political environment. Third, Mrs Gandhi’s voters were willing to try out her ideas because at the time she propounded them, they were different, even radical. That was 40 years ago. Surely, as her greatest devotee departs to the most honourable retirement imaginable, India can now emerge from her shadow?