This time around, he’s talking governance
After infuriating India Inc by stopping projects like Vedanta’s aluminium one in Orissa while talking about being the tribals’ sipahi in New Delhi some years ago, and then confounding it by talking of the need to hike growth while being inclusive just some months ago, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is now delighting India’s corporate sector by talking of how the government just cannot be holding up their projects in the manner being done over the past several years. If Gandhi’s seriousness in Niyamgiri was demonstrated by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh withholding environment clearance for the plant just the day before Gandhi landed in Niyamgiri to address the tribals, his new-found fondness for governance was shown by the government shifting environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan back to the party prior to Gandhi’s speech at industry body Ficci’s AGM last week. Gandhi slipped in a bit of humour by telling the body of industrialists that his last quarter’s results—the 5 assembly elections—had been a disaster, but he was ready to move on. And in the manner that finance minister P Chidambaram wowed industry by saying there could be no redistribution if there was no growth, Gandhi reiterated the need for the economy to grow.
We cannot, he said, allow industry to be held hostage to arbitrary powers. And if it wasn’t clear what he was referring to, he added, “... The environment minister or chief minister can take any decision he wants”. “We cannot,” he added, “allow you to be held back by slow decision-making. Accountability has to be clear, fixed and time-bound”. The Cabinet Committee on Investment’s project clearances was cited in this context.
What’s not clear is how seriously one is to take the new Gandhi and, more important, will the next environment minister—for now, petroleum minister Veerappa Moily has been given additional charge—be able to provide timely environmental clearances. Certainly the government should be in a hurry to deliver since the Rajasthan drubbing shows voters are not impressed by mere freebies. So far, given what he inherited at the petroleum ministry, Moily has shown a remarkable ability to get the bureaucracy moving—just one move, to allow oil firms to do continuous exploration, has lead to eight fairly significant oil/gas discoveries in the last one year and, had the rupee not played spoilsport, the diesel subsidy would be largely tackled by now; the gas impasse has been partially resolved and even the situation with Reliance has been partially defused. But, ultimately a lot depends upon what the Congress president and vice-president desire. Almost all actions by the environment ministry, either under Natarajan or Jairam Ramesh before her, were in keeping with the Gandhis’ known preferences; in terms of other areas, it was the Congress leadership that drove the time-consuming and tortuous land acquisition Act, the expensive food security one and the largely misplaced MGNREGA. The jury is still out on the change of heart.