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Thursday, 29 May 2014 01:00
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Mishap over principal secretary unfortunate

After winning a historic mandate, it is unfortunate that the government got tripped on the appointment of its principal secretary, and had to issue an ordinance to make his appointment legally tenable. The rules of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), of which Nripendra Misra was the chairman, state that the chairperson/members cannot ever be employed in the government again—Wednesday’s ordinance amends this portion of the Trai Act which, it has to be said, deserved amending. The rules were put in place to ensure regulators didn’t do the government’s bidding for the lure of future office. But the same rules don’t apply to other regulators such as Sebi and the Competition Commission, and surely a cooling off period—as is prescribed for a regulator accepting private employment—would do the trick? After all, going by the Trai rules, a regulator can never stand for elections or public office—most courts would strike down the rules quite quickly since it violates fundamental freedoms. The fact, however, is that a sure-footed government should have been aware of this. More so since this was not some arcane rule no one was aware of—Misra himself had written to the communications ministry in 2006 protesting the rule and asking for it to be changed.

Governments have, in the past, overcome far greater embarrassments and gone on to do a good job. And so it may be with the Modi establishment—the protesting Shiv Sena minister has, for instance, decided to finally join office—though the lack of a defence minister in the initial swearing in does suggest things aren’t quite going the way the prime minister would want them to. Some of the first-day-first-quotes by Cabinet members also suggest the prime minister will have a tough job converting his colleagues to his way of thinking. Food minister Ram Vilas Paswan, for instance, spoke of the need to create more storage facilities for the Food Corporation of India, though it is more than abundantly clear that FCI’s problem is too much procurement —its stocks are 27 million tonnes more than what is required under the buffer norms and this costs the government around R70,000 crore extra. Education minister Smriti Irani, similarly, repeated the old BJP line of raising education-spend to 6% of GDP though the Pratham surveys of elementary education and the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings of universities show—India has just one university in the top 500 global ones—India’s education problem are not related to just funding. The saving grace, though, is that ministers like Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad are sticking to a more modern script of fiscal consolidation and removing tax terrorism; though just a temporary defence minister, Jaitley also talked of removing the senseless 26% cap on FDI. Perhaps it is just as well that, while putting out the list of Cabinet ministers, the official communiqué said that the prime minister’s mandate included “all important policy issues”, suggesting thereby that should any minister fail to take the right decision, the prime minister will have no qualms—as he shouldn’t—in taking matters into his own hands.


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