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The tragedy of Manmohan Singh

Updated Oct 03, 2013 02:00pm
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