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BW Businessworld

A View From The Top

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When the Prime Minister gives a press conference, it is a special event; in his tenure of seven years, he has not met the press more than half a dozen times. The reason was perhaps implicit in what he said at last week's press conference: that he is not very fond of the press. He thinks it is relentlessly and unscrupulously critical of the government; it victimises the government. That raises the question: if he thinks so unfavourably of the press, why did he deign to meet it? The answer would probably be in two parts. First, he did not meet the press, but only handpicked editors, who presumably were picked on the basis of their influence on the public, and perhaps of their non-participation in the victimisation of the government. And second, he would like the press to introspect, realise its error, and treat the government more fairly.

This is a fair demand. The media do tend to enjoy teasing the government, and competition within the media is such, that fairness does not enter the picture. The Prime Minister could have cited the case of Shashi Tharoor, whose promising career in government was cut short by certain highly publicised indiscretions. Shashi Tharoor is young and resilient; soon after the scandal he had a high-profile, almost enviable wedding, which too got much publicity. That was a good way of overcoming the injustice inflicted by the media, but it is hardly open to the government.

Implicit in the plaint was the view that the government is doing its best, whether on the Lokpal Bill or chasing black money or insulating the economy from global instability. If its best efforts did not result in success, that is in the nature of policy making. The Prime Minister cited Sir Paul Chambers, chief of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) whom he heard half a century ago, to the effect that getting seven decisions right out of ten was excellent performance in industry. A decade before the Prime Minister heard him, ICI was the largest manufacturing company in the British empire, which included India. Today it no longer exists. It would seem that one of the ten decisions then taken went wrong.

That is the danger in running a government just as it is in running a company — a single wrong decision can lead to oblivion. The Prime Minister's predecessor, P.V. Narasimha Rao, took many right decisions, including appointing Manmohan Singh as finance minister. But he omitted to make it up with Sonia Gandhi. As a result, he fell a few seats short of majority in 1996, was swept out of power, and died in obscurity eight years later. Such are the risks of prime ministership. Complaining about them would make no difference. Politics is as much a game of chance as horse racing. Only one horse wins a race, and few horses win many. The Prime Minister may think that it was his stewardship that made him Prime Minister twice; but he should not exclude the working of luck.

But it is not all luck. In fact, the Prime Minister has a greater chance of influencing not only his own but also the nation's future than the rest of us have. One of the subdued complaints of his critics is that he does not use that chance often enough. It goes without saying that many of his countrymen think highly of him, and wish he would be more active for good and against evil.

They could not understand, for example, how he could just watch for years while A. Raja turned his ministry into a lucrative subsidiary. Sir Paul would not have allowed one of his directors the same freedom of enterprise even if that meant his losing the chiefship. Giving Raja a free hand may be one of the three mistakes the Prime Minister expects reasonably to make on ten decisions. But persisting with the public distribution system, which has opened the floodgates of corruption, is a decision the Prime Minister can still undo. Some people wonder how he can just watch thousands of crores being siphoned off, year in and year out.

He is apparently waiting for Nandan Nilekani to finish giving every citizen a number. But it is not clear how giving everyone a number instead of a name will eliminate corruption; after all, fake numbers are just as easy to invent as fake names. This is equally true of the Saxena lottery. Identifying the poor on the basis of seven criteria will not eliminate misidentification, for data based on the criteria can always be faked.

Those who unfairly attack the Prime Minister will not be deterred by his counterattack. But it did serve a purpose: he made it so long that he had no time to give reasoned responses to the substantive criticisms of his policies. They must wait for his next press conference.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 18-07-2011)