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A V Rajwade: The Prime Minister's right

WORLD MONEY

A V Rajwade  |  New Delhi 

I gave my first (and last) job interview in SBI more than 50 years back. During those days, the interview used to be with a committee of the bank's directors. And one of them bowled a googly: "What would be your reaction if I say that our Prime Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru at that time) talks too much?" (Note the "if"). I somehow managed to deflect the ball, saying "Sir, if our Prime Minister does talk too much, it is his privilege."
I was reminded of this incident in the context of the Prime Minister's now famous speech at the CII conference and the, mostly critical, press comment it has elicited. While our present Prime Minister can hardly be accused of talking too much, it was certainly his privilege to say whatever he did at the conference, particularly when he had been invited to comment on the social responsibility of business. I would also not quarrel with his preaching the virtues of austerity and hard work: economic historians attribute the greater advancement of northern Europe as compared to southern Europe to protestant (Calvinist) virtues like thrift and education. In any case, he had the right credentials, being a man of impeccable integrity and humility (old timers in RBI have told me how he would stand in the queue to see the doctor in the RBI central office, even when he was governor).
But this apart, somebody like the Prime Minister does need to raise the issue of what the major stakeholders in the economy can do for the country, instead of merely asking what the government can do for them. (John Kennedy made the point in his inaugural address "" think of what you can do for the United States, not merely what the United States can do for you.) How one hopes that the Prime Minister publicly raises similar issues with other stakeholders in the economy like the politicians in general and his cabinet colleagues in particular; the civil service and the middle class in general; and even the poor in this country. As for the politicians, for example, would he call upon all those who stand for elections and declare assets in crores of rupees, to at least have a PAN card? (Many crorepati candidates in the UP election did not have them.) Would he tell his Supreme Leader that education and employment reservations based on caste and religion would merely perpetuate the divisions in the society, and that it is more equitable to make these on the basis of economic criteria? That the present system has created a vested interest in having one's own caste declared as backward or scheduled, sometimes leading to tragic loss of life as happened in Rajasthan last week? That fostering a culture of dependency on the state for everything is not the best way forward for the country? That every subsidy to other than BPL is at the cost of rural roads, water supplies and schools?
The civil service also needs to be told clearly that they are here to serve the citizens of this country and that they should not be producing shoddily drafted, less-than-clear laws, rules and regulations leading to endless delays, corruption and the harassment of citizens; that the secretary's job is not merely to frame policy, but to also pay attention to how it can be implemented in the most citizen-friendly fashion; that even top civil servants need to give up their Brahminic indifference to mundane matters like form and system design, procedures, and so on. The endless and sometimes conflicting tax circulars regarding service tax, for instance, are only one example. The middle class in general also needs to be made aware that it has probably been the biggest beneficiary of fast growth in the economy over the last couple of decades, and is still the beneficiary of the maximum share of subsidies; and that these subsidies will have to be withdrawn as resources are needed elsewhere.
As for the broader constituency of the people of India, including the poor, it is the responsibility of those who believe in economic reforms, including the Prime Minister, to "market" them. Take the current issue of agricultural land for industry. The fact is that God stopped manufacturing land a long time back; industry can produce far more jobs on one acre of land than agriculture can; that unless there is a huge movement of workers from agriculture to industry and services, rural standards of living cannot improve. This does need to be emphasised, lest only those who see every change as a crime will gain populist support.
Tailpiece: When the home minister visited the recently bombed mosque in Hyderabad, he did so in a convoy of 24 cars. Is this any less ostentatious than a businessman riding in a Mercedes? Unfortunately, in our democracy, the politician's worth depends on the number of armed guards, hangers on, and assorted officials in vehicles following him.

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First Published: Mon, June 04 2007. 00:00 IST
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