Singh

By Overdorf, Jason; Mazumdar, Sudip | Newsweek International, June 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Singh


Overdorf, Jason, Mazumdar, Sudip, Newsweek International


Byline: Jason Overdorf and Sudip Mazumdar

He may be shy, but his 100-day plan for India is strikingly bold.

For much of the past 15 years, Indian politics were so chaotic that a prime minister would spend most of his first 100 days focused on a single objective: holding onto power. But Manmohan Singh's surprisingly decisive victory in last month's election--coupled with the global economic crisis--has suddenly put him on an American president's schedule: you have 100 days, now get to work fast.

Believing that the Congress Party's near-majority in Parliament will free Singh to slash red tape and spur growth, bankers, columnists, lobbyists and think tanks have spent the time since the poll results were announced on May 16 issuing a torrent of to-do lists for the prime minister. But probably the boldest and most innovative agenda has come from Singh himself. Conceived during the election campaign, at a time when nobody else had much faith in him, his 100-day plan is filled with specific, substantive measures that range from selling stakes in state-owned companies to restructuring rules on public-private partnerships to removing bottlenecks that have delayed some $15 billion worth of road projects to enacting a new food-security law. Together, the advances might just amount to the big-bang reforms that India has been awaiting for nearly a decade now. And having vanquished his foes on the left and the right and earned the unquestioning faith of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, his party's leaders, Singh might even manage to get it all done.

Not everyone is happy with his plans. Despite being best-known as the architect of India's economic opening in 1991, today the prime minister's got other things on his mind. He, Sonia and Rahul are intent on reforming--or transforming--India, but not in a way prescribed by international moneymen or CEOs. Instead, under the shorthand "inclusive growth," they aim to carve out a new path that, if successful, could provide a road map for developing countries worldwide.

Central to their goal are measures some people might not consider reforms at all. First among them are a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and a Right to Information Act (RTI). Decried by some economists as a populist sop, the NREGS is in fact designed to revolutionize India's leaky bureaucratic mechanism for dispersing money and to free the poor from exploitative middlemen by channeling an unprecedented level of funds (and decision-making power) to village-level elected officials. Singh believes that, like Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, this stimulus plan will put money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it well and will create a social safety net that will help unleash their productive capacities. Meanwhile, Congress plans to expand the use of the RTI, which was enacted in 2005, and to pass a few new laws to make bureaucrats, politicians and judges more accountable by shining a bright light on their activities.

In a country where even the trash in a government wastebasket is frequently considered classified information, the RTI is groundbreaking. Under the law, ordinary people can for the first time get a look at the books of their local ration shops, say, or at government departments--and see what corrupt officials have been skimming off the top, delivering to fictitious beneficiaries, or just plain stealing. And because the information must be made available within 30 days or the official in charge will face immediate punishment, whistleblowers get results from RTI cases much faster than they would from India's progressive but slow-as-molasses legal system.

Still, until recently, no one has pushed RTI far enough to enjoy its full potential. Now Rahul is striving to do just that by urging youth to storm the barricades of the bureaucracy with an ever-expanding number of RTI cases. The effects could be revolutionary. In Uttar Pradesh--India's largest state and a place where the Congress Party made a huge and unexpected surge in the recent election--Shailendra Singh, a former police officer who now heads the party's RTI cell, became such an irritant in September that the state's chief minister, Mayawati, had him arrested. …

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