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Call a spade a shovel

The announcement of FDI in retail is an administrative subterfuge. It's the UPA's way of diverting attention from its failure to curb corruption and patronage, writes Manvendra Singh.
Hindustan Times | By Manvendra Singh
UPDATED ON SEP 27, 2012 10:26 PM IST

Reforms, as the prime minister would have us believe, have got a boost with a couple of steps taken recently. The announcements about diesel and foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector are simply administrative announcements masquerading as reform. There is nothing reformative about these announcements. The real requirement — and the real crisis — continues to be a policy paralysis in the government that curtails corruption and credits innovation and enterprise. There is nothing in the recent announcements — or those made in the past for that matter — that suggests that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government is taking steps that will fundamentally change the structure of governance so that people are freed from the tyranny of corruption and patronage. That would be reforms of the most important order. But, instead, what the government declared recently are essentially administrative guidelines. The UPA's governance model revolves around taking steps to cover up the missteps taken earlier. And this is just another such example.

The announcement of FDI in retail is really contrived, attempting to suggest a virtue rather than a necessity. There is nothing in the manner of the announcement that suggests deliberation, planning, and foresight. It is actually a desperate attempt to divert attention from the coal dust whirling around the country. There was plenty of it going around to stick where it hurts the most. The pretence of probity is only as deep as the pretence that it is. The matter of distributing coal fields in a completely arbitrary manner lies at the root of India's systemic failings. It is the epitome of crony capitalism, similar to but far more dirty than the scandal of 2G auctions. Both controversies have taken the sheen of the prime minister's image. And both controversies remain unaddressed in terms of improving systemic failures. In actual fact, the government is simply brushing the issue out of public discourse. Various attempts are being made to divert attention from the real failures of decision-making, which is what the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) attempted to demonstrate.

There are rumours going around about who is going to face the axe in the next round of ministerial reshuffling. And who is going to get a promotion. One of the names doing the rounds for a kick out is that of Subodh Kant Sahay, the minister for tourism. The reason being mentioned is that the PM is peeved that Sahay recommended a coal block for a company in which his brother had an interest, but didn't inform his boss. A recent newspaper report says that the recommendation was in writing to the Prime Minister's Office, and the allotment was made within 24 hours. In the annals of PMO efficiency and speediness, that would be akin to Usain Bolt's 100 metre world record. But it suggests a greater malaise, and which is sought to be glossed over. How the PMO, surrogating as the coal ministry, could allot a coal block to a company without due diligence defies imagination. Of course, the manner of this UPA government's decision-making defies imagination, but a basic, and essential, procedural matter cannot be jettisoned without culpability. It is no good blaming Sahay for the recommendation. What about the person who took the decision to allot the coal field?

The BJP will not allow the matter of FDI in retail to divert attention from the real issue at stake — the corruption perpetuated by the government, which epitomises crony capitalism, and the 21st century version of the licence-permit raj. The 2G scandal was a warning of the disease that is rampant in the country and the Coalgate controversy only underlines the extent of the damage that is being done. The opposition to FDI in retail does not take away from the core concerns that currently prevail, namely the accountability of those responsible for scandalously giving away coal blocks on the cheap. It remains the primary focus of the party, even if the PMO would like the FDI matter to rule the air waves. The essential requirements of reform are getting to the roots of these scandals, questioning the arbitrary nature of governance, and exposing the lack of accountability at every level of office.

The real aspect of reform, where the State and its executive are unable to perpetuate the licence-permit raj under guise and patronage of the dirtiest kind, is where the focus ought to be. Once those changes are put in place, there won't be any reason to fear FDI in retail. For then the Indian retailer will have the benefits that are due to him/her, so as to secure their particular market.

The opportunities as they stand today are skewed in favour of the transnational operator. This is anathema to the BJP and to a majority of the Indian political class. The BJP does not shy away from reforms. Neither does it escape from its responsibilities, primary among which is to call a spade a spade. What the UPA is announcing is not reforms, but simply an administrative subterfuge. It must be opposed at all levels, until the truth over corruption prevails.

Manvendra Singh is a former BJP MP and founding editor, Defence & Security Alert. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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