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Saturday, 3 December 2011


The chasm that divides action and inaction haunts any government. For many months, the government of Manmohan Singh has been pondering over ways to bridge the gulf and appear to be a government that acts. Since the winds of the 2G scam hit the ship of State, the United Progressive Alliance government has been like a rudderless boat. The government was providing no directions and was not taking any major decision. It was running on inertia. Occasionally, it only reacted to the provocations of the Opposition or of Anna Hazare. Consequently, the government appeared to be ineffective and incompetent. The only break in this gloom had been the speech of Mr Singh to Parliament. Even though the prime minister was reacting to allegations of corruption that had been hurled at him, the speech succeeded in boosting morale. The general reaction of those who are sympathetic to the UPA and to Mr Singh was that he should speak out more often and should be firmer than he usually is.

However late, the message seems to have gone home. The government has announced a major policy decision — permitting foreign direct investment in retail — and has chosen not to dither on it. In spite of serious objections from some allies, especially the Trinamul Congress, the prime minister has made it clear that the policy will not be rolled back. There is an echo here of the firm stand Mr Singh took when he pushed through the Indo-US nuclear deal. He is willing to stake the future of his government over a policy that he thinks will bring enormous benefits to the country and its people. Even the prime minister’s critics will have to accept that this is how a prime minister is expected to behave. He is expected to provide leadership and act according to an agenda that bears his special stamp. Mr Singh’s name and fame are both inextricably linked to economic liberalization and the opening up of the economy, and allowing FDI in retail is part of the elaborate process of economic reform. Mr Singh is thus following an agenda that has his unmistakable imprimatur. That he has not retreated is something that India has for long yearned to see.

The implications of this go far beyond personal kudos for the prime minister. The policy decision and the government’s firmness open up an opportunity for the Congress to slough off its despondency and inactivity. It has at last an issue with which it can go to the people to tell them about its benefits and also to convince them that the Congress leads a government that acts. The entry of foreign investment in retail has the potential to bring benefits to a large number of farmers. But this has to be communicated to those concerned and explained to them. The government and the Congress have found a purpose that can drive both. The government of Mr Singh is not yet a lost cause.


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