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The tragedy of Manmohan Singh

Updated Oct 03, 2013 02:00pm


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PM Singh (left) with Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Uttar Pradesh state in 2011. — Photo AFP
PM Singh (left) with Rahul Gandhi during a rally in Uttar Pradesh state in 2011. — Photo AFP

IN EARLY 1979, then-Indian Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in China when the Chinese People's Liberation Army attacked Vietnam to, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, "teach them a lesson".

Given New Delhi's close ties with Hanoi, the military strike on a friendly nation at a time when an Indian leader was on Chinese soil was deemed an affront. Mr Vajpayee cut short his trip to make a diplomatic point.

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington when the No. 2 in his own party, Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi's son Rahul, delivered a shocking snub ahead of a key meeting with US President Barack Obama that prompted calls for Dr Singh to quit and return home.

Showing up unexpectedly at a press conference addressed by a party underling, Rahul slammed the Indian government's plans to introduce an ordinance that would effectively void a Supreme Court order banning from parliament politicians who had received criminal convictions. The ordinance, Rahul said, is "complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away".

The contretemps in New Delhi that resulted would have been hailed as high drama from an influential rebel if it wasn't an all too familiar farce. Far too often, the Gandhi family that controls the Congress party and the governing coalition has pushed the Singh government one way, only to distance itself from him in the face of a public backlash.

In this case, the debate over a Bill overturning the court order had racked India for weeks. Everyone knew its purpose was to save the political careers of key allies in the Congress-led coalition. The ordinance was needed as a stopgap measure as the Bill wound its way through parliament.

What is more, it was widely known that PM Singh was deeply discomfited by the legislation, and went along reluctantly. Yet, here was the Nehru-Gandhi legatee and putative heir to the throne disavowing it.

Mr Sanjaya Baru, a former aide to Dr Singh who continues to have the Prime Minister's confidence, was among those outraged. Railing against the younger Gandhi's "insubordination", Mr Baru called on Dr Singh to leave his post that very day. "You cannot," said Mr Baru of Rahul, "pretend to be a great hero at the cost of your Prime Minister's dignity."

Dr Singh, of course, has no such intentions and has made that clear. Dismissing the barb as the act of a stripling would perhaps have been the best way to handle the issue, but the Cabinet's reported decision to withdraw the ordinance slew any misconception of who really runs India.

If Dr Singh has been severely embarrassed one more time, he has only himself to blame.

Pitchforked into office in 2004, when Mrs Gandhi unexpectedly declined her party's nomination, he was seen as a reluctant politician, a perception that endeared him to millions of Indians tired of the self-serving ways of their rulers.

At the time, the dyarchy - he runs the government, she the coalition - was seen as a brilliant innovation. He handpicked his foreign secretary, ignoring the seniority of a dozen officers, prompting several to quit.

A nuclear deal he pushed through with the US at the cost of parliamentary support from key Leftist allies was seen as proof of his political courage. In 2008, as the world considered the fallout from the global financial crisis, India, which had escaped its worst effects, was a respected voice in the G-20.

The palpable anxiety Indians felt as Dr Singh underwent tricky heart surgery just before the 2009 polls showed the genuine affection people felt for this soft-spoken soul. It is well possible that Dr Singh convinced himself privately that the coalition's success in holding on to power was in part his own victory.

But Dr Singh in his second term has been a shadow of Version 1. Rather than crack down on them, his government's approach to multiple scandals - in telecoms licensing, allotment of coal blocks, preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games - was to react only when compelled to.

The Gandhi son-in-law gained amazing wealth without being challenged. A key water deal with Bangladesh was called off at the last minute at the behest of a coalition partner. To cap it all, an officer close to the Gandhis was sent over to be his Principal Secretary, adding to a sense of entrapment.

Sadly, Dr Singh's response was to blame the compulsions of coalition politics for his inaction. In other instances he simply stayed silent, perhaps, as some say, defining the integrity of his office as a narrowly construed "personal" integrity. It is a mystery why Dr Singh, who reads a dozen newspapers every day and is fully aware of public opinion, has allowed himself to be so diminished.

But the price he's paid for his teflon jacket has been severe: slights from the opposition and his own party, indiscipline in Cabinet, and a neighbourhood that, far from being awed by India's power, tends to be disdainful of it.

Perhaps most hurtful for him is his battered image as an economist. The economy he inherited from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was a strong one and he continued to enjoy the lag effects of its policies in his first term.

Now, his government's mis-steps are coming home to roost. The massive farm loan writeoffs of 2008, once seen as a brilliant move to shore up rural purchasing power, have hurt the credit culture and public finances. Job guarantee schemes have disrupted traditional migration patterns, causing labour shortages in farm belts.

The latest, conveniently announced before the next election, is an expensive food subsidy programme promoted by a well-intentioned cabal advising Mrs Gandhi.

The result has been an exploding current account deficit, a plunging currency and an economy that threatens a return to the much-maligned "Hindu growth rates" of yore.

In the crushing words of Ru-chir Sharma, Morgan Stanley's head of global macro economics and author of the acclaimed book Breakout Nations, Dr Singh has been "consistently wrong on the economy".

The PM's well-wishers, still numerous, worry for his hard-earned reputation. Nothing would please them more than to see Dr Singh end his frozen state. But if his constraints are too many, they'd like to see him move aside to avoid further indignity.

All it takes then is for him to tell Mrs Gandhi that at 80, it is time for him to go. The coalition, he could suggest, will gain from a fresh face leading it into next year's polls, perhaps her own high-minded son.

But they also know Dr Singh's favourite saying - if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And so it's a safe bet that it will be a while before the cavalry leaves his door.

— By arrangement with The Straits Times/ANN

Comments (22) Closed

Ramesh Oct 03, 2013 12:14pm

Dynastic rule in world's largest democracy. What a tragedy.

Zafar Iqbal Oct 03, 2013 03:10pm

@Ramesh: It is a tragedy of the subcontinent . see Pakistan and Bangladesh also.

Rai Oct 03, 2013 04:02pm

An 80 year old responsible for the future of a country!

Silajit Oct 03, 2013 06:34pm

Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. As clean as MMS comes across, the truth is that the biggest corruption scandals in the country's history have happened under his watch.

He could have been the moral force of the party and the government. But he did not push back against this last bill that was an open amnesty to criminal politicians. He has fallen in the eyes of so many people that even his ability to keep the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi is in doubt.

SBB Oct 03, 2013 07:26pm

This is a great analysis of a major flaw in India's governance. Thanks for pointing them out. It's time for Indians to act on the leadership they really need instead of the drama unfolding in front of the world.

ijk Oct 03, 2013 09:23pm

Mr. Velloo , kudos to Indian public for standing up to likes of Rahul Gandhi.We, in Pakistan had NRO a presidential ordinance issued by ex military ruler Musharraf. The ordinance practically exonerated all the politicians who were involved in proven corruption, supreme court over turned it but could not enforce it. Evidently, Indian public knows its right though sadly both countries are still plagued by dynastic politics.

Ahmer Oct 03, 2013 10:09pm

In Pakistan, not only the ruling clan but even the opposition is based around a dynasty.

Ekalavya Oct 03, 2013 10:57pm

@Zafar Iqbal: Thanks for your efforts but as Indians, we are not interested in being compared with Pakistan or Bangladesh

Prapur Oct 03, 2013 11:04pm

I hope MMS has some dignity left to salvage after suffering public humiliation. What is happening in private when he as PM of India can be humiliated just like Rahul did? In my opinion he is a spine less sardar or simply too corrupt to utter a word. Sonia is running the show, a person without any accountability in government and can not be caught for any thing going wrong be it corruption or failure of policies. Narsimh Rao was far better to keep her at arm length.

mukund Oct 04, 2013 02:11am

@Ramesh: Oy thy are selected by people. So don't say dynesti

Raja Oct 04, 2013 04:44am

Manmohan is a good and an honest leader. His problem is, he is surrounded by crooks specially the corrupt opposition who want to degrade him.

John Oct 04, 2013 05:17am

A man who does not have the courage to standup and ask for right thing to do; ends up where Mr. Singh is today. Dr. Singh would have been remembered with respect forever, had he mustered the courage to resign and walk away. Now he has made himself as insignificant as others in Congress.

jssidhoo Oct 04, 2013 08:11am

The Gandhi family has authority without responsibility a recipe for disaster

akash Oct 04, 2013 08:35am

Paints a very accurate picture of the incumbent Prime minister. I feel sad for him, for someone who achieved so much as finance minister. I feel he could have done better, if it was not for the madam controlling the govt and forcing her socialists, leftist policy down his throat. Its time for India to change, come next election.

Guru Oct 04, 2013 10:01am

We in India, will make the Yuvaraj wait a while, before he gets his turn at running the country. The sheer lack of governance that the UPA has thrust on the country far outweighs whatever freebies that they gave out. Next year will see a change in the rulers from Delhi, if the public pulse holds.

K G Surendran Oct 04, 2013 11:24am

He wants to go down in history as a Prime Minister who served two terms (without being elected by the people). There is the additional attraction of hanging onto the chair despite all the insults heaped on him. However, as events have panned out in his second term history will not be kind to his legacy that he leaves behind. He will also be remembered for being an economist PM who messed up the economy.

saaaqi Oct 04, 2013 11:55am

Do remember 90's era when some of his critics were on bottle feeding. I sincerely believe that; we the people of this sub-continent should immediately change what we EAT.

a.k.lal Oct 04, 2013 09:14pm

Dr. MMS is a clever man, only now getting exposed. He masterminded corruption in Russian exports during Gorbachov era, something public is largely unaware about. As governor reserve bank, he initiated Harshad Mehta scam in which government chaps became multi millionaires and poor Mehta died. Nobody even knows Singhs role in it. The economy was improved by Narsimha Raoji, and Singh grabbed the credit. Mr. Rao never tried to grab credit it is another story. Singh inherited booming economy from A.B.Bajpai, which was systematically looted under him.First term was managed as economy was too strong to suddenly crumble, but in second term he brought nation to Jawahar-Indira-Rajiv rate of growth.

a.k.lal Oct 04, 2013 09:15pm

@Zafar Iqbal: and Sri Lanka

Sekar Oct 05, 2013 02:15am

Singh has been a disgrace. Corruption, poverty, economy, security , crime have all gone in the wrong direction. None of the neighboring nations take him or his government seriously. He has functioned as a " village woman" a spineless bystander to all disasters around him. In a democracy he has never won an election. Wo-Manmohan Singh is his new name.

Aiza Oct 05, 2013 07:40am

@Ekalavya: Trying to be more catholic than the pope? Very pathetic!

Noor Oct 06, 2013 07:35pm

@Zafar Iqbal:

What about the Bushes, Clintons, Kennedys, etc. of USA, Aquinos of Philipines, Kirchners of Argentina, Bachelets of Chile, Castros of Cuba, Hollande & Segolene Royal of France (they birthed 4 children as partners), Hariris of Lebanon, Assads of Syria, Bandarnaikes & Rajapaksas of Srilanka, Shinawatras of Thailand, Kims of North Korea, father & daughter presidents Park Chung-hee & Park Geun-hye of South Korea, Karzais of Afganistan...