The answers differed but they were linked by a common strand: lack of economic governance and the need to improve delivery mechanisms so that those untouched by reforms could benefit from India’s growth story.
This emerged as the central idea of the panel discussion initiated by Finance Minister P Chidambaram. Answering the question were former disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, KV Kamath, managing director and CEO, ICICI Bank; Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries; Prannoy Roy of NDTV and Shekhar Gupta of The Indian Express. And, of course, the guest who was the pivot of it all: former bureaucrat and The Indian Express columnist N K Singh, whose book The Politics of Change: A Ringside View (a collection of his columns in The Indian Express) was launched here this evening.
So if Shourie called for giving states more incentives for pushing reform, Roy urged the Government to “thing big” rather than tinker with minor details. Kamath called for rural India to be linked to the market, Ambani for education reform and Gupta called for shrinking of the government.
The Finance Minister regretted the slow pace of reforms and said a growth rate of 10 per cent is achievable — it’s just that we will have to “seize the opportunity” to take the process ahead in a scenario where we have complex politics and widespread views. He also raised a question as to why reforms take place in a halting fashion, and answered it himself: “The opportunity in India is not smooth, we have to change the process of reform and will have to go faster.”
Underlining that in India reformers were “opportunistic reformers,” Chidambaram said that the challenge was to be able to identify the opportunity and push the reforms process forward.
Reacting to Chidambaram’s observation, Shourie replied by saying: “The book has very few postscripts which suggest that most of the reforms suggested have actually not happened and this leads me to say that very few people have the power to seize the opportunity but many have the power to stop.” He emphasized the role of the Prime Minister in being the prime mover of the reform process.
Suggesting the one big idea of reform, Shekhar Gupta highlighted the need to provide a level of dignity to the larger section of the society, which is seeking not only bijli, sadak and pani, but also padhai and rozgar.
In a rare public display of diametrically opposite views coming from two people in the same government, Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyer, in the audience, was acidic: “Where is the discussion? All panelists have only one view. There is an India outside these views.” According to him, the need was to end this “obscenity” of celebrating India’s billionaires and look at the huge, invisible India that lived in poverty which has not changed from the pre-reform era. He said that the Centre wasn’t decentralising enough to empower the Panchayats.
To which Chidambaram replied saying that the quality of governance at even the state level, leave alone Panchayats, was “depressingly lower” than at the Centre.
Roy argued that no politics can bring change and put his faith in the “people of India” and private enterprise.
He said the government should become irrelevant and asked what the government was doing with forex reserves the country had accumulated: “Why can’t we use $20 billion to solve our water problem that will become a major issue in future?” Chidambaram replied that forex reserves had to be used outside India and he wondered how the water problem could be solved via this route.
Ambani highlighted the short-term nature of people’s expectations. He said, extending a survey his company had done to politics, the way ahead is by “empowering people, who want instant gratification, instant solutions to their problems and promises that will bear fruit five years ahead.”
Kamath’s response to the one big reform was market connectivity and transfer of purchasing power to rural India: “The rural market needs to be connected. By doing just that you will add 2-3 per cent to India’s growth.”
To a question by Lord Meghnad Desai — why can’t we transfer money, say a dollar a day, directly to the poor? — Chidambaram said, “Cash transfer directly in the hands of poor is the single most popular program to poverty alleviation until we provide them jobs. But we need to have the money for it. We will need to dismantle the existing schemes and the system. I will do my sums tonight to see if we have the money.”
All panelists agreed to that barring N K Singh, who felt that would not be “an efficacious way to empower India”.
Earlier, introducing Singh’s book, Chidambaram said: “The debate in India is not about the left or the right. It’s about doing the right thing and the wrong thing.”
“Given the complex politics in India, given the multitude of political parties... the best way to go forward is to seize the opportunity,” he said. “The 10 per cent growth rate is within our reach, we just need to make extra effort.”