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Friday, Oct 18, 2019

Manmohanji, sir...

From tackling price rise to curbing corruption, the list of ‘unfinished tasks’ is quite long for the prime minister to retire anytime soon, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: May 28, 2010 23:29 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai
Hindustan Times

Dear Dr Singh,

At the outset, many congratulations on completing six years in office, making you the longest-serving Indian PM since Indira Gandhi. For a self-confessed ‘accidental politician’, this is truly a remarkable achievement — an evidence that nice guys do sometimes finish first. Let me also apologise, sir, for having chosen to correspond with you through a newspaper column. But since I couldn’t attend your press conference, I just thought of using this forum to raise some questions swimming in my mind.

Let me start with the question that a recent CNN IBN-Hindustan Times poll suggests remains the biggest concern of the aam aadmi with UPA 2: rising prices. You mentioned that inflation would be brought under control by December. Could you explain the basis for your confidence, since a similar assurance was given last year too? As a supplementary, may I ask if you would concede that there has been mismanagement of the food economy?

Take the sugar sector, for example, where there has been little reform. Last year, according to the economic survey, there was a 9 per cent reduction in cane production. The signs of impending scarcity were there. Yet, analysts say there was at least a three-month delay in allowing imports. Sugar production is expected to be high in the next season. That would be an opportune moment to decontrol the industry — abolish rationed-sugar quotas and government-ordered releases of sugar into the open market. Private sugar mills will welcome this, but will the cooperatives, which are virtually ‘owned’ by agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, relent?

Food inflation has also been aggravated by high prices of fruits and vegetables. Should not the government encourage big retailers, including foreign ones, to enter into buying arrangements with farmers, so that they are assured of market and prices and also get the expertise to grow what consumers want? This may be politically contentious. But, surely, a sixth year in power demands biting the bullet.

May I also ask how you intend to deal with the paradox of overflowing granaries but steep prices? Last year the government procured wheat and rice aggressively because of elections. Despite one of the worst droughts, we are now sitting on huge stocks. Our correspondents have done a series of reports about grain rotting in government warehouses across the country. The Vajpayee government took the flak for selling grain abroad at below-BPL prices. It will be the turn of your government now. The price at which the government procures buffer stock (to protect consumers from price spurts) and the support price for farmers (to insure against price slumps) cannot be the same, as is the case now.

Let me turn to the issue, which, as you say, is the main internal security challenge facing the country: the rise of Naxalism. Is it true, as the home minister has suggested, that the government only has a ‘limited mandate’ in tackling the Maoists? As a supplementary, may I ask if there is complete consensus within the government and the Congress over just how to win the war against the Maoists?

The war against the Maoists must be fought like any other battle: with a clarity of mind. Unfortunately, one has detected a certain confusion within decision-makers in recent weeks. Powerful sections of your party are insisting that the ‘root causes’ of Naxalism must be analysed before any armed action is taken. The home minister himself seems convinced about the need to use force, but seems to have got dragged into a personalised war of words with human rights activists. The Maoists have guns in the jungles, they will not be defeated by the ‘politics of condemnation’ in television studios. They must be defeated like all ‘armed terrorists’ — we cannot see them as ‘misguided youths any more — by a well trained and committed police force. But, as many security experts have pointed out, our state police and paramilitary forces are neither fully equipped nor motivated to take on the Maoists on their own terrain.

The third issue that is of universal concern is corruption. There is little doubt, sir, of your personal integrity. But would you concede that it’s been difficult for you to check corruption among your ministerial colleagues? As a supplementary, may I ask that if the CBI had been investigating a Congress minister and not an ally like A. Raja of the DMK, would you have shown the same leniency?

I appreciate that there are certain compulsions of coalition politics. The BJP, for example, which is demanding Raja’s head, should be asked why it chose to close the tax files against the AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa when it was in a power-sharing arrangement with her. And yet, an important reason for the admiration one has for you is your unswerving commitment to probity in public life. With due respect, sir, you can no longer be a Dhritarashtra-like figure, who turns a blind eye to ministerial corruption. This is not just about Raja, but a growing suspicion that several ministers have their hand in the till. I realise you need evidence to act against colleagues. But surely one signal from you will be enough for the government agencies to gather the proof.

Sir, I have just listed a few of the ‘unfinished tasks’ before you. From Pakistan to financial reform to speeding up highway projects, there is much that remains to be done. At this rate, retirement and handing over power to a ‘younger’ leadership may be a long way away.

Post-script: I do hope that you will get the time to respond to some of my queries. And sir, you don’t have to wait till next year’s press conference to do so. A candid interview would be just fine.

First Published: May 28, 2010 23:25 IST

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