Legacy politics

If past experience is anything to go by, governments have the opportunity to take bold economic decisions either in the very first year after they get elected or during the last six to eight months before general elections are announced. There may be a logic to this peculiar pattern. One recalls covering the key economic ministries during the last six months of the United Front coalition government in 1997-98. The chaotic United Front regime (June 1996 to March 1998) implemented some of the boldest reforms towards the last few months of its tenure. By then, the CPI, which was part of the government, had stopped attending cabinet meetings in protest against what it saw as the UF's market-oriented economic policies, even as the Congress and CPM, which supported the government from outside, threatened daily to withdraw support.

It was in these circumstances that the then finance minister, P. Chidambaram, and Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav pushed some landmark reforms through the cabinet. The historic decision to dismantle the administrative price regime for petroleum products was taken by a shaky UF cabinet towards the end of its tenure. So was another seminal reform — the repeal of the Urban Land Ceiling Act, which would eventually enable the optimal use of land for industrial purposes. The urgency shown by the then government to push these decisions was evident from the fact that Jairam Ramesh, as officer on special duty to Chidambaram, would personally carry the files — to cut the time taken by the lower bureaucracy — and get the signatures of other relevant ministers and their secretaries in the government.

Some broad parallels are visible in the UPA government today, as there is growing talk of a possible general election next year. The other parallels are Chidambaram as finance minister and a government once again dependent on Mulayam to push the big decisions. Jairam Ramesh, this time as minister, is actively pursuing changes in the land acquisition legislation. Also, like the UF coalition in 1997-98, UPA 2 also seems to be in overdrive in the last quarter of its tenure.

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