Payback for stealthy reform

Before sitting down to write this, I spent some time surfing news channels to gauge reactions to the price of diesel going up. If the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi had done the same, they may have concluded, as I did, that possibly the biggest mistake their government has made is to not tell people the truth about why the economy had to be reformed. Had they not brought reforms by stealth, hoping against hope that nobody would notice the Congress Party's shift away from central planning, they would have not faced today the eruption of public anger that is palpable from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

There is so much confusion about economic reforms in the public mind that people seem not to know what they want. Reporters given the task of recording the vox populi, in the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, interviewed mostly housewives and young men. Both categories vented their anger against the government and charged it with being insensitive to the pain of the 'common man'. But, then an interesting thing happened on the news channels I watched. If the reporter extended the interview to more than just a sound byte, the same people started demanding that the government do something to make the economy grow. In the words of one young man in Mumbai, 'There are no jobs left for us because the economy has slowed down so much. Why did this government allow this to happen? What will we do if the slowdown leads to fewer jobs?'

Now if we had a Prime Minister who believed in speaking out instead of silence, he would have told people proudly on national television that it was his reforms in 1991 that brought growth, prosperity and jobs. He would have told them this happened only because the Indian economy stopped being stuck at an annual growth rate of 3 per cent. He would add that the current slowdown is the direct result of a return to licence raj economics.

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