Monday, November 7, 2011

When a Decision not to take a Decision is the Only Decision, Nemesis Awaits

Deepak Parekh said it on television. Fourteen industrialists said it in a group statement. The Reserve Bank said it. The Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council said it. On each of these occasions, the Government pretended that it heard nothing. Then Azim Premji said it. Suddenly the Government's apologists took note. Premji must be one business leader the Government is afraid of. Or especially fond of.

The irony is that what they all said was also what the people have been saying for about two years – that the Government is avoiding taking decisions on critical issues. “A complete absence of decision-making among the leaders of the Government”, is how Premji put it.

Deepak Parekh, a pioneer in the financial sector, had given us a rather graphic account of how the leaders avoided their responsibility. Whenever a serious issue came up, they would appoint a Group of Ministers to talk about it. If the issue was very serious, they would pass it on to an Empowered Group of Ministers. The bottom line was that no individual minister would be held accountable for a decision.

Why? What are they afraid of? The best guess would be that ministers are following the Prime Minister's penchant not to take decisions on his own. And the Prime Minister, we know, takes no decisions because the Remote Control is not with him. When a situation of conflict comes up, we see the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister and the Home Minister rushing to explain things to their party President who never lets the people know what her counsel is in such situations. Citizens are left with an impression of secretiveness in the affairs of the state.

Explanations, if any, come from inconsequential spokespersons. They do it with all the fatuousness and absurdity at their command. Premji's comment, Minister Ambika Soni said, did not reflect reality. But of course it did. Absence of decision-making was the main feature of not only the investment and reform sectors the business leaders were referring to, but also the scam sector the lay public was worried about.

Manageable problems turned by indecision into unmanageable ones are numerous – the Commonwealth Games muddle, the 2-G spectrum corruption, the Adarsh Housing scam, Telengana, a series of security-related issues, even urgent defence procurement schemes. Premji was stating the obvious when he said the country's economic growth would suffer if prompt corrective action was not taken.

Issues on which the Government does take a decision end up in disaster. The decision to set up a thugs' army called Salwa Judum to fight Maoists in Chattisgarh actually swelled the ranks of Maoists as government atrocities turned more villagers into rebels. The decision to arrest Anna Hazare boosted his profile and reinforced middle class resolve to fight corruption. The Supreme Court found the Salwa Judum illegal. People found the Hazare arrest stupid.

The Government still does not understand that the people are capable of seeing through pretensions. In a permanent state of denial, it goes on saying there is nothing wrong in what it does, or does not do. And because it does not see anything wrong, it will not set anything right. It has created a trap and fallen into it.

If there's anything worse than not taking decisions on time, it is taking decisions under pressure from public opinion and the courts. Money going illegally abroad is an old story. Published reports mentioned names like Hassan Ali. The Government took no action leading to the conclusion that VIP interests were involved. It is taking no action now about illegal account holders. France has furnished a long list of their names. America has demonstrated how banks can be forced to yield information. Yet, India does nothing and the names of black money hoarders remain secret.

Of course a decision not to take a decision is also a decision. But a Government that protects those it has a responsibility to punish will itself be punished. Sooner rather than later.