Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Failure to Lead

NEW DELHI — On March 14, Dinesh Trivedi, the minister in charge of Indian Railways, announced a fare increase the first in almost a decade. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it “forward-looking.’’ Then, on March 18, Trivedi was forced to resign — with the prime minister’s approval.

The political twists and turns over those four days highlight the policy paralysis that has gripped the Congress-led ruling coalition and illustrate why the reputation of Singh and his party is so badly tarnished three years into his second term.

Today the prime minister is widely seen as a man whose failure to stand by his beliefs has done damage to the government and the nation. Although opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in India, every survey suggests that Singh’s approval ratings have declined dramatically. His weak leadership has made him an object of pity, and he has only himself to blame.

The rail fare hike was not undertaken on a whim. Indian Railways, which transports 30 million passengers a day and employs more than 1.4 million people, is a largely autonomous government body. The charismatic Mamata Banerjee was in charge of it from 2009 to 2011 until her party, the Trinamool Congress, an important member of the national coalition, came to power in the state of West Bengal. Banerjee became the state’s chief minister in May 2011 and ensured that a fellow party member, Dinesh Trivedi, was appointed to the railways post.

The organization Trivedi inherited was in deep trouble. A 2008 nationally mandated wage increase for all government employees and Banerjee’s populism, which led her to announce the construction of several new rail lines, many of them to her home state, without raising fares, crippled the agency financially. Its cash reserves fell from a healthy $2.7 billion in 2008 to a mere $150,000 in 2011. Accident rates and fatalities rose.

Trivedi was left with little choice. Saying that the organization was “sick,’’ he announced a fare increase that was so clearly needed that even the rail unions supported it.

Banerjee, who opposed any such measure, claimed she had not been consulted and asked for Trivedi’s resignation and for the fare increase to be canceled. Prime Minister Singh quickly caved in and agreed to Trivedi’s resignation and a partial rollback of the fare increase.

Singh was well aware that a significant part of the new revenue was meant for measures related to safety. But neither concern for safety nor economic necessity was enough for him to stand by something he had endorsed. The government depends on the support of Banerjee’s party to remain in power, and Singh showed that he would opt for power over principle.

And not for the first time. Three years ago, another alliance partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, pressured Singh to keep A. Raja as telecommunications minister despite the fact that many of Raja’s actions during his first term were seen as potentially corrupt. If Singh had insisted, it is likely Raja would have been kept out of the government.

Within a year, Raja was indicted in what turned out to be the biggest corruption scandal in modern India, involving the dubious allotment of telecommunications bandwidth. Anger against the government crystallized into a huge anti-corruption movement that has since petered out, though public anger with the government has not.

Embattled, Singh has retreated into himself, declining to reach out to his allies or the opposition on a number of key issues. In this period of paralysis, his government has failed to put in place an ombudsman to tackle corruption and has been at the receiving end of a series of public battles with the army chief.

Singh could have had a very different second term if he had stuck to his convictions and kept A. Raja out of the cabinet back in 2009. It would have sent a clear message that he was willing to stake his own future and the future of his government on points of principle, creating greater room for him to maneuver and earning him the goodwill of the public.

Instead, Singh’s weakness has fed government inertia. He failed to grab the chance for redemption by standing firm and supporting Trivedi, the former rail minister. While Singh may have ensured the survival of his government for now, it is not clear to what end.

By Hartosh Singh Bal political editor of Open Magazine and co-author of “A Certain Ambiguity.’’

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