New Delhi, 15 May-2014,Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar(TNN): History will be kind to Manmohan Singh. It will remember him as the finance minister who launched India’s economic reforms in 1991, and the Prime Minister who presided over 8.5% GDP growth for most of a decade. It will also remember him as a Sikh who was nominated for Prime Ministership by a Christian Congress president and sworn in by a Muslim President in a country that is 82% Hindu.
“I haven’t heard except from Indian Media Categorizing President/PM/other into Muslim/Sikh/Christian….. & they Call themselves Secular .”
Why will he not be remembered as the man under whom economic growth halved from 9% to 4.5%, inflation averaged almost 10% for five years, and unending scams culminated in the worst-ever electoral defeat for the Congress party? For the same reason that Abraham Lincoln is not remembered for scandalous dirty tricks and bribes to get his way (displayed memorably in the film ‘Lincoln’ ). Nor is Lincoln remembered as the hypocrite who won the election as a moderate on slavery, arguing that states had a constitutional right to slavery if they so wished, but then declared in 1863 that he had the power to abolish slavery by decree.
Few people know or care about Lincoln’s failings: these pale beside his great achievement of abolishing slavery. Similarly, people will forget Manmohan Singh’s failings, and remember him as the father of economic reform and superfast growth. This superfast growth persuaded George Bush to offer India a seat in the nuclear club, ending nuclear apartheid. It also persuaded Barack Obama to promise US support to India for a UN Security Council seat.
Set aside the history books: let’s talk about today, as Singh demits office. Many critics complain that he didn’t do enough in 10 years of rule. This criticism is mis-worded since it assumes that Singh has been ruling India, when the unquestioned ruler has been Sonia Gandhi. Formal democratic titles mean nothing in the semi-feudal ethos of the Congress Party. Only the dynasty matters.
This is a party where all members are supposed to sit up and beg when any member of the Gandhi family whistles. Its members have no rationale, purpose or hope of power save through the grace of the Gandhis. Dynastic feudalism is, of course evident in other parties too, like those of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Deve Gowda, Jagan Reddy, Karunanidhi and sundry others. But the Congress has been the pioneer and greatest practitioner of feudal rule. The wazir in a feudal court has some powers, but must know his place in the power structure, or else lose his head.
Manmohan Singh was fully aware of and agreeable to this when he accepted the Prime Ministership. A seasoned bureaucrat, he was used to proposing ideas but retreating respectfully if opposed by his boss. He was ideal for Sonia, a respected technocrat with absolutely no political base or ambitions, who could serve but not threaten the dynasty.
This dynasty has generated more black money than all others combined. It found very useful Singh’s unimpeachable reputation for integrity. This provided some cover to the dynasty when scams exploded. But it damaged Singh’s own reputation. Remember the scene from the film ‘Dabangg’ where Malaika Arora dances in front of Salman Khan singing “Munni badnam hui, Darling tere liye?” This inspired a cartoon showing Manmohan Singh dancing in front of Sonia Gandhi, singing “Munna badnam hua, Darling tere liye.”
In dynastic terms, Singh should perhaps be judged not as a Prime Minister but as a regent, keeping the throne warm for the young prince, under the watchful gaze of the Dowager Empress. I wrote back in 2005, after his first year as Prime Minister, that his approach could be summed up in Seven Commandments.
* Thou shalt not displease Sonia.
* Thou shalt not displease the Left Front.
* Thou shalt not test the limits of your powers.
* Thou shalt focus on surviving a full term.
* Thou shalt accommodate in the cabinet all criminals who can help this aim.
* Thou shalt at the end of your regency hand over the reins to the true dynastic inheritors.
* Thou shalt, meanwhile, be free to initiate policies that threaten neither the dynasty nor the coalition’s survival (such as improving relations with Pakistan and China, and organizing buses to Muzaffarabad).
This was the story of UPA-1 until George Bush offered India membership of the nuclear club. Singh grabbed the offer, and Sonia gave her blessings. On this issue UPA-1 broke with the Left Front, risking defeat in Parliament. This courage paid off. But after victory seemed assured, Manmohan scored a terrible own-goal. He succumbed to opposition pressure by putting the liability for any nuclear mishap on foreign suppliers. Because of this, no nuclear power deals are going ahead at all. A great nuclear initiative has been nullified by cowardice on one clause.
The story of UPA-2 has eerie similarities, with Mamata Banerjee replacing the Left Front as the key force keeping the government alive, but extracting its pound of flesh . Sonia took economic growth for granted, did not listen to Singh’s pleadings for further reforms, and switched to the NAC as her chief guide and mentor.
UPA-1 finally broke with the Left Front on the nuclear deal, and UPA-2 broke with Mamata after Moody’s threatened to downgrade India’s credit rating in 2012. This would have meant an immediate outflow of $100 billion, sinking the economy in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Drastic action was called for.
For the second time, Manmohan Singh took a firm stand and Sonia backed him. At the risk of losing Mamata’s support and becoming a minority government, Sonia abandoned the NAC and allowed Singh and Chidambaram to chart a new course. They were asked to boost growth, tame inflation, and enact reforms.
Alas, they failed on all three counts. GDP growth remained at just 4.5%, half the 9% achieved earlier. Consumer price inflation simply did not fall below the 8-10 % range. As for reforms, the new rules for FDI in multi-brand retail were so loaded with cumbersome clauses that they have not yielded much investment. The subsidy on diesel was supposed to be phased out, but the crash in the rupee last year raised the import price, so the diesel subsidy today remains as high as ever. The Cabinet Committee on Investment cleared stuck projects worth Rs 6 lakh crore, yet this did not translate into any boom in orders for capital goods or construction contracts.
Why? Because a new licencepermit raj had come up unnoticed. The old licence raj was based on industrial licences, import licences and forex controls. The new licence raj was based on the environment, forests, tribal areas ad land acquisition. A veritable jungle of new controls in these areas was created at central and state levels. Initially, these new barriers were overcome by bribes. But once public anger exploded over corruption, clearances could not be bought, and the impenetrable nature of the new controls became evident. Judicial activism made bureaucrats wary of taking any decisions.
Singh and Chidambaram claim that things would have been much worse but for their efforts. Maybe, but that is hardly a winning election platform. For most of his 10 years, Singh was feted for his economic skills and integrity. He leaves office amidst economic travails and the smell of corruption.
Can he take solace in the fact that in his last six months, foreign money has flooded into India, the rupee has strengthened, and the stock markets have boomed. Alas, no. The sad fact is that they are booming because of the expectation that he will soon be replaced by Modi.
Singh started with two years of 8.5% growth and ended with two years of 4.5% growth. If only it had been the other way round! However, political careers rarely end on a cheerful note, as can be testified by his predecessors — Vajpayee, Gujral, Deve Gowda, Narasimha Rao, VP Singh, Rajiv Gandhi.
However, people are ultimately judged not by their failures but for their career achievements. Virender Sehwag, for instance, had to be ousted from the Indian cricket team after two years of bad performance, just like Singh. But the history books will record that Sehwag was India’s highest scoring opening batsman ever. His later failures cannot eclipse his heroic feats in his glory days. The same will be true of Manmohan Singh. [Input source: TOI]