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India politics go back to the future

KOLKATA, India -- It's now or never for Manmohan Singh. Unless he shows the courage to push through the economic reforms and not succumb yet again to Sonia Gandhi's pressure to go easy on them, the country is doomed. The economist in him has to be assertive, therefore, perhaps for the first time, vis-a-vis the populist Sonia.

It is necessary to clarify, however, that Sonia cannot be said to have put pressure on the prime minister directly. Instead, it was more by means of innuendo, such as the framing of laws by the National Advisory Council (NAC) led by her, which made a mockery of the reforms by their unbridled populism entailing huge expenditure.

At the same time, it has to be pointed out that the prime minister did resist these extravagant suggestions, including the one on the Food Security Bill, which aims at feeding 600-700 million with subsidized grains. In his case, too, it was more by implication as when the cabinet passed so contentious a bill in one hour despite Sharad Pawar's objections, thereby underlining a disinclination to spend much time on it when Sonia was so keen on its passage.

However, it is the resistance offered by the prime minister, mild though it has been, which has led to the current policy logjam and which, in turn, has resulted in the stalling of the reforms and the consequent economic slowdown. In hindsight, though, this isn't such a bad thing, after all, for it has awakened everyone to the possibility of the country's widely admired growth story coming to an end.

As a result, the emphasis has shifted back to reforms again, thereby giving the Prime Minister an excellent opportunity to do what he did when he kickstarted the economy as the finance minister in 1991.

And, now that he is in charge of the Finance Ministry again, Manmohan Singh has the chance to showcase his talent for infusing “animal spirits” into the economy, to quote what he said to the Finance Ministry officials on the day he took charge. But does he have the gumption? He cannot be unaware that there are influential anti-reforms elements ranged against him. They include the Communists, their intellectual standard-bearers like Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, social activist Medha Patkar and others, a major Chennai-based newspaper which editorialized that Sonia was more “clued in” to the socialistic aspirations of the common people than the pro-American prime minister, and, of course, the left-leaning members of the NAC.

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