November 2, 2008

Rajiv Gandhi's last manifesto

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

V Anantha Nageswaran

As a student in the United States, this writer remembers reading newspaper highlights of that manifesto, and of not being able to suppress the excitement at the bold vision that the manifesto stood for. It is India’s tragedy that Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s life was cut short in 1991. In fact, some observers also claim that he was perhaps the last of the national security-conscious Prime Ministers of India. We shall stick to his economic vision here.

A search for the 1991 manifesto on the internet leads one to a story by Subroto Roy. He writes that Mr Rajiv Gandhi sought specific proposals and recommendations for the direction the country should take from outside experts. Mr Roy was one of them.

Although Mr Roy writes that the final manifesto was a diluted version, the agenda for the public sector published in the final version is bold by standards of the UPA government. The manifesto accepted that for the public sector it needed flexibility, vision, visibility, accountability, leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, global outlook and a competitive environment. More specifically, the manifesto recognised that the government ought to interfere less, provide for strong and professionally competent boards and enable the sector to attract the best managerial talent.

The manifesto said that the construction of toll-highways and toll-bridges would be thrown open to the private and joint sectors and that the Congress party would endeavour to abolish the monopoly of any sector or any individual enterprise in any field of manufacture, except on strategic or military considerations and that all manufacturing activity would be thrown open to competition.

The Congress party promised to accomplish this within the first two years of coming to power. In the first three years, the party promised to oversee the gradual withdrawal of the public sector from areas where the private and joint sectors have developed capabilities.

Contrast this with a allegedly reformist Prime Minister Singh and the chairperson of his ruling alliance laying the foundation stone for the modernisation and expansion of a steel plant in the public sector, accompanied by a Minister for Steel who declared that the mismatch between demand and supply contributed to the price rise. All this when an Indian was receiving the Forbes Lifetime Achievement award for his achievements in steel production in the private sector!

It is a telling commentary on how far the Congress party has come away from Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s vision that the page in the party’s website on the highlights of the previous manifestos pointedly omits the proposals on industrial and public sector reforms from the 1991 manifesto.

Actually, the first nine pages of the 1991 manifesto lay specific charges on the previous National Front government. Some samples are here: “The National Front unleashed communal animosity”, “The National Front unleashed caste animosity”, “The National Front compromised with terrorism”, “The National Front bungled in Kashmir” and “The National Front: A picture of chaos and confusion”. One wonders what Mr Rajiv Gandhi would have said of the UPA government.

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