|Feb 7, 2000|
|Presidential Caution |
Nothing wrong with a debate on economic and constitutional reforms
President K.R. Narayanan's Republic Day address was a passionate plea to check the growing inequalities in Indian society, to not ignore the poverty-stricken bystander amid the triumphalist march of economic liberalisation. A day later, at a function in Parliament to mark the 50th year of the Constitution's adoption, he scoffed at any review of the basic law. Both views would seem to be in contravention of those of the Government that rules in Narayanan's name. It is easy, therefore, to look at this as the beginning of a war between the President and the prime minister. While this may be the facile assessment, it would also be the churlish one. At one level, nothing that the President has said is objectionable. The battle against poverty is unquestionably India's No. 1 challenge. Further, there are many citizens who would agree with their President when he argues that the Constitution has not let down the people as much as the people have let down the Constitution.
How then should India react to this public disagreement? Actually, it need not cause dismay. Both sentiments -- Narayanan's tilt to the left and Atal Bihari Vajpayee's anti-statism -- flow from long-cherished political philosophies. That Rashtrapati Bhavan has taken upon itself the role of a conscience keeper is certainly a welcome change from the days when presidents happily declared they would sweep the floor for the prime minister. A democracy thrives on ideas and on debate. If the President and the prime minister can trigger such intellectual ferment, India will certainly not be the poorer. Pragmatic governance -- rather than wild swings from old orthodoxies to new ones -- may finally be possible. As such, it is incumbent, therefore, upon Narayanan and Vajpayee to set the stage for discussion, rather than create room for suspicion.
For a Sell-by Date
The issue is not divestment. It is speed and transparency.
After years of much talk and more policy, the Government finally seems to be moving towards what was once India's greatest snarl word -- privatisation. The sale of Modern Foods to Hindustan Lever and the proposed sale of 51 per cent of Indian Airlines (IA) equity are not welcome as much as overdue. In 1997, the Kelkar Committee laid down the procedure for the IA sale. In June 1998, finance minister Yashwant Sinha announced it during his budget speech. From March 31, 1999, the deadline has now been extended to March 31, 2001. The course followed in the case of IA will be of particular interest and could set a benchmark for divestment in future. The key lies in identifying the "strategic partner" who will buy 26 per cent of IA's equity. Foreign airlines are barred from the auction. Local airline barons may be intimidated by the idea of bidding for a giant corporation and, should they do so, will face familiar questions about monopolies. Having stifled enterprise in the domestic air travel industry for decades, the Government will have to find a credible business partner and hope it makes a success of revitalising a limping IA.
To achieve all this transparently is doubtless a challenge but one on which the course of privatisation -- and the divestment minister's possible place in history -- depends. The absence of systemic precedents apart, the minister's biggest hurdle will be the bureaucracy and IA employee unions. It would have helped, of course, if the Government had laid down clear norms to remove IAS babus -- potential saboteurs for whom privatisation would mean an end to perquisite raj -- from boards of psus at least three years before they were due for sale. Strictly speaking, that is not a job the Department of Divestment can accomplish on its own. Still, it can try.