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As principles peter out

July 12, 2012

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.