As principles peter out

Published Jul 12, 2012 03:02am

IT was the late 18th-century German playwright Gotthold Lessing who accidentally stumbled on to a human phenomenon that came to be known two centuries later as the Peter Principle.

In one of Lessing’s comedies a character ponders the dilemma that still eludes remedy: “To become more than a sergeant? I don’t consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly an even worse general. People have had this experience.”

The nub of the Peter Principle, so called after a 1969 book of that name by Dr Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull, lies in the commonly used phrase: “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” In other words, the effect could be simply that people tend to be given more authority until they cannot continue to work competently.

In the last few weeks, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been virtually dumped by the western media that once put a halo around his trademark blue turban. They promoted him as India’s economic wizard and are now calling him incompetent. Time magazine says he is an “underachiever”.

Even Dr Singh’s current detractors, principally the Bharatiya Janata Party, had described him as the right finance minister in the wrong party. In my only formal interview with Dr Singh, however, in the wake of the then raging Harshad Mehta securities scam, I had somewhat bluntly asked the finance minister if he would own responsibility or resign. He frowned his famous frown in response.

The western news agency I worked with was livid at my “irrelevant” question. It seems now, from the recent comments by Standard & Poor’s and subsequently the Time magazine’s critique of Dr Singh’s current tenure, that I had the (dubious?) distinction of being ahead of the denouement by at least 20 years.

Standard & Poor’s (whose lowering of India’s rating in 1990 and thereby heralding Dr Singh’s advent I ironically became the first to report in the Economic Times) recently critiqued him as an unelected prime minister. This is unfortunately true.

It is equally true that Dr Singh, who has never been a member of the Lok Sabha, was also only a nominated finance minister, and yet he was much lionised in western capitals for being that.

Now into his eighth year as prime minister, a period during which he evicted the left’s support and embraced the West more closely, Dr Singh, a former teacher of economics, stands accused by his former admirers of not doing enough for his market reforms.

Was he then the sergeant who got promoted as general? Standard & Poor’s, which had lowered India’s rating outlook to ‘negative’ from ‘stable’ in April, implied India might be better off under someone else’s watch. Was it jockeying for Narendra Modi, villain for India’s liberals but cynosure of the country’s politically powerful business community? The hint is too obvious to ignore.

“The paramount political power rests with the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, who holds no cabinet position, while the government is led by an unelected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who lacks a political base of his own,” S&P lamented.

The uncharacteristic western critique of the architect of India’s economic reforms is of course hypocritical as also misleading. A fact seldom mentioned by the ubiquitous foreign correspondents in Dr Singh’s journey to the top is that his reforms were made possible by two unflattering events.

To begin with, they would never have taken off had the government in which Dr Singh was finance minister not used bribery to win a crucial vote of confidence. MPs who took money to effectively vote for the reforms were eventually jailed. It was a brazen subversion of parliamentary democracy but remains hardly discussed by the country’s corporate media.

The second unfortunate fact came in the form of the finance minister’s election to the Upper House from Assam as a resident of the remote north-eastern state. Many are still not convinced that Dr Singh was a normal resident of the state as the requirement was before the Supreme Court lowered the hurdle.

Why is the criticism of Prime Minister Singh hypocritical? For one, it ignores the wider and more germane questioning of the effects of the reforms and the course they took to the detriment of a majority of Indians. Tens of thousands of farmers have committed suicide, and human development indices of the UN equate populous Indians states with that of sub-Saharan Africa.

In his first budget speech in July 1991, Dr Singh stressed his reforms would not encourage the “mindless and heartless consumerism we have borrowed from the affluent societies of the West”.

He explained his objection to the consumerist phenomenon was two-fold. First, India could not afford it. “In a society where we lack drinking water, education, health, shelter and other basic necessities, it would be tragic if our productive resources were to be devoted largely to the satisfaction of the needs of a small minority.

“The country’s need for water — for drinking and for irrigation — rural roads, good urban infrastructure and massive investments in primary education and basic health services for the poor are so great as to effectively preclude encouragement to consumerist behaviour imitative of advanced industrial societies. Our approach to development has to combine efficiency with austerity.”

Now austerity is not something the West would prescribe as a virtue until its own economies would begin to go down on their knees. If anything Dr Singh too has presided over a mushrooming of motorcars (Delhi has more passenger cars than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together) and cellphones as a cure for India’s backwardness.

A minister in the Singh cabinet describes what he sees as an ideological drift in the Congress party as something to address urgently. It is not clear what ideology he is referring to.

The last time when his prime minister was short of numbers against a left-led move to block his ‘strategic’ embrace of the US he appealed in adulation to ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ Atal Behari Vajpayee to bail him out, which he did.

All that the Congress and its bumbling general can perhaps do now is to promote another sergeant to take charge. Ideology has long ceased to be of relevance.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com


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Comments (10) (Closed)


PK
Jul 12, 2012 08:51am
A good article gives indepth analysis of present state of Indian economy .
Ram Narayan
Jul 12, 2012 12:16pm
Spot on, Mr. Naqvi!
Dr V. C. Bhutani
Jul 12, 2012 12:37pm
I This is good as far as it goes. On a matter of minor correction, Dr Manmohan Singh is into his ninth year as prime minister, as from 22 May this year. See Wikipedia. You have taken so many petty points that I am driven to say that it might as well have been a critique written by the BJP. It squares well with what has come from BJP about Dr Manmohan Singh during the last nine years. As for his financial policies during 1991-6, the soundness of his approach was appreciated by all his successors, regardless of the party that they belonged to. Whether it was Mr Chidambaram (then not in the Congress), Mr Yashwant Sinha, or Mr Jaswant Singh, all of them continued with Dr Manmohan Singh financial and monetary policies. That brought us to 2004, after which he was prime minister and had his own party men as finance ministers.
NORI
Jul 12, 2012 06:41pm
Mr.Prakash, It''s not the leadership of Manmohan Singh that got India out of troubles during 90's, but it's the leadership and strategic vision of P.V.Narasimha Rao, the most successful India PM so far. Manmohan was best as a subordinate but worst as a General. He couldn't control the greed of his cabinet ministers such as Raja, Sharad Pawar (He became ICC president while being Minister for Agriculture) and Dayanidhi Maran. Not just greed, he couldn't control the arrogance of his ministers such as Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal. No wonder, he was called an 'Under achiever'. PM's post is not bank clerical exam in which you excel once and continue to reap benefits for the rest of your life.
bkt
Jul 12, 2012 04:07pm
Good article. Nice insight into Indian politics
Jay
Jul 12, 2012 01:26pm
Congress does not have parliamentary majority to implement financial reforms Dr. Singh wants. So criticism of Dr. Singh has to be tempered.
Shree
Jul 12, 2012 01:20pm
It is not fair to target Dr Mamohan Singh for the downward trend in Indian economy. There are multiple reasons for that and one of them is the bad shapeof global economy itself and India can't buy immunity. Second is that he is not free to make his decisions and Congress's electoral prefrences come in the way and lastly, Opposition is not cooperating. examples is FDI in retail sector. I dont care if he has a political base or not, infact, it is better not to have people with politcal base. What could Pranab Mukherjee, a seasoned politician, do as finance minister of India ? Also I disagree with your claim "The last time when his prime minister was short of numbers against a left-led move to block his ‘strategic’ embrace of the US he appealed in adulation to ‘Bhishma Pitamah’ Atal Behari Vajpayee to bail him out, which he did." BJP had strongly opposed Indo-US nuclear deal and voted against it.
Prakash
Jul 12, 2012 01:07pm
Mr Naqvi,you are repeating yourself umpteen times giving same old arguments against Mr Singh.But you can not ignore that during his leadership India gre out of 3% Hindu rate of growth, its band value is internationaly recognised and Indian companies and Human resources are successfully poaching business and engagement world wide..Any way this is supposed to be his last round of PM tenure, but in his two terms he or his family can not be held guilty of corruption like current lot of PM of Pakistan.
murali
Jul 12, 2012 06:40am
Would be nice if this was published in an Indian news paper.
Dr V. C. Bhutani
Jul 12, 2012 12:37pm
II In a way, therefore, Dr Manmohan Singh's financial and monetary policies have held the field since 1991. No one has suggested that those policies need to be modified. On the contrary, the complaint has been that reforms have not been fast and serious enough lately. It seems that during the current phase, when the prime minister is also his own finance minister, these reforms shall not be long in coming. The men in command are Dr Manmohan Singh, Mr Chidambaram, and Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia. We have not heard that there have been disagreements between them. V. C. Bhutani, Delhi, India, 12 July 2012, 1802 IST