Press conference blues
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We don't have anything like a State of the Union address. There is the prime minister's Independence Day address from the Red Fort, but it is not the same. We are one year into UPA-II and for any government wishing to deliver, it is the first year that matters. It was no different for UPA-I. Goaded by NAC-I (National Advisory Council), UPA-I delivered the RTI and the NREGS in its first year (six months actually) and there was little of note thereafter. Perhaps because it is actually the sixth year, or perhaps because NAC-II has not quite been constituted yet, there has been nothing significant, beyond Women's Reservation and Right to Education. With the Left out of the way, with no NCMP (National Common Minimum Programme) acting as a constraint, with an imploding opposition and with a relatively large mandate in favour of the Congress, the Congress leadership probably expected a big bang in reforms. "Big", "small" and even "bang" are subjective terms. Pro-market reformers will probably not classify anything as "big" or "bang" unless pension, insurance, banking, labour laws and FDI in retail are thrown in. There was no question of this happening. The so-called "inclusive" agenda means a swing to the left. And if that "inclusive" agenda is voted back in, with a large mandate, why should one rock the boat?
Until the global financial crisis, the economy was chugging along at around 8.8 per cent. People seemed happy. Why bother? The merits of this hypothesis and counterfactual possibilities of higher growth with reforms are irrelevant. What is relevant is the Congress leadership wanted a big bang too, though that big bang was cloaked under the inclusive agenda. After five years of experience with UPA-I, there seemed to be an agenda of what the Congress thought was politically and economically desirable and this was bunged into the President's Address to Parliament on June 4, 2009. This was the new NCMP. True, reforms don't get done in one year. There are four more years to go, though empirically, ennui, political compulsions and pandering to status quo set in from the third year. But the country didn't necessarily want reforms to be accomplished in a single year. It was UPA-II that promised manna from heaven in the first 100 days. Accordingly, a paragraph 32 was thrown into the President's Address, to the effect that, "My Government will initiate steps within the next hundred days on the following measures." Once a promise about this version of the big bang had been made, the country was entitled to ask that the promise be kept. After all, on more than one occasion (August 15, 2004; May 19, 2009), the PM has said there are no new promises to be made. But there are promises to be kept.