Ever since the Bofors gun deal brought the expression
"winding-up charges" into the political lexicon, the final phase of a government`s term has been seen as devoted to frenetic deal making and building of nest eggs. This summer, while the focus of the media has been elsewhere - on events from Gujarat to Bihar - the UPA government has quietly gone about its task of securing
It began with the dramatic increase in gas prices, the announcement coming close to a year in advance of the actual hike, which will begin to kick in as a new government is preparing to take charge in May 2014. The cabinet meeting that cleared the decision to raise gas prices was hilarious. Former petroleum minister S. Jaipal Reddy began by protesting against the price hike being placed on the agenda. Instead of replying to him, the prime minister simply turned to the finance minister, who made an impassioned plea for raising prices.
Then a series of ministers followed a pre-written script, singing paeans on behalf of those who will benefit from the gas price surge. The power and fertiliser ministers - both oversee industries that are gas consumers - made perfunctory objections. The rural development minister said something suitably equivocal and incomprehensible. Meanwhile, Reddy raged away but was ignored by the reliable suspects.
The Civil Aviation Ministry was not to be left behind. It practically outsourced India`s civil aviation policy to Abu Dhabi by agreeing to a sweetheart bilateral flights arrangement, only to help Jet Airways get FDI from Etihad Airways. Finally, this proved too awkward to defend and the government went into civil war over civil aviation. Not to be outdone, the civil aviation minister now wants to rush through with privatisation of key airports, including Chennai and Kolkata, in a last-minute, every-man-for-himself scramble.
The buzz in New Delhi is that next in line is the Railways Ministry. In the nine months since the Trinamool Congress quit the UPA and Mukul Roy resigned as railway minister, the Congress has given India four railway ministers. One of them resigned following a bribery and job-fixing scandal. Now it appears, the party and government have cooked up a plan to monetise, privatise and sell off railway property across the country, allegedly to raise funds for modernisation. In reality, a new set of crony deals and grabbing of precious public-owned assets is being plotted.
More is in the offing. Stories are being planted in friendly sections of the media that say the government must ease local procurement norms for foreign companies that are entering the multi-brand retail sector. This will nail the government`s feeble argument that FDI in retail will create a manufacturing boom and an ocean of jobs in India. Rather, it will allow chosen retail companies to treat India as a market and nothing else.
Indeed, there is even talk of permitting these companies to engage in e-commerce - so far prohibited. If this happens, what will it do to the so-called authority given to state governments to permit opening of foreign-owned retail stores in their jurisdictions. E-retail will nullify and override the autonomy of state governments. That aside, doors may be opened for genetically-modified food as well - at least a bunch of ministers is working in that direction.
This unseemly hurry has to be seen for what it is: the final thrust of a government that earlier lived from crisis-to-crisis and now lives from suitcase-to-suitcase.
Till next week, meow!