The Faux Victimhood of Manmohan Singh
On Wednesday evening, many Congress leaders went to a dinner hosted by party president Sonia Gandhi. The meal was to bid farewell to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who served in that post for 10 years.
The only notable absentee at the meal table was Rahul Gandhi, vicepresident of the party his mother heads. Rahul’s absence has been interpreted as a snub to Singh, as a mark of disrespect to a man who laboured long and hard at India’s top job. Really?
Though Sonia appointed Singh to the top job in 2004 — she was hailed in media for her “renunciation” then — the relationship between Singh and Sonia was not always smooth and seamless. Singh’s laissez faire instincts, acquired quite late in his life, were often at odds with Sonia’s left-leaning, rightsbased political approach.
When Sonia gathered a group of intellectuals and activists around her to form the National Advisory Council (NAC), Singh quickly formed a prime minister’s economic advisory council (PMEAC) to push back. And push back he did.
Almost every welfare measure proposed by the NAC was resisted by the PMEAC, from the NREGA job scheme to the law that made it a right for every poor person to get cheap food. Each time, the PMEAC used the same hackneyed argument to counter the NAC: India can’t afford this scheme or that.
Never mind that the NREGA’s total cost turned out to be well under 0.5% of India’s GDP. Never mind that the NREGA succeeded in setting a floor to rural wages, leading to the highest farm wage growth ever seen in India.
When the PMEAC’s bean counters argued against the right to food law, saying it would bust the bank, they conveniently forgot that India was sitting on record grain stocks of 80 million tonnes. The additional cost of implementing this is likely to be negligible.
Apart from these differences, Singh was given a free hand to carry on with his job. Yet, in many important — and potentially controversial — assignments, he chose to pass the buck to colleagues who had more spine. So, decisions on civil aviation, public broadcasting, competition law, coal regulation and many, many more were handed over to groups of ministers (GoMs), headed by Pranab Mukherjee, Palaniappan Chidambaram and A K Antony, among others.
Ideally, the Cabinet, which the prime minister chairs, should be the last word on any important policy decision. Not so under Singh. So, subjects like the food law, SEZs, gas pricing, telecom spectrum allocation, oil subsidies and so on were handed over to empowered GoMs, the word “empow- ered” meaning that the groups’ decisions were final and would not even need the Prime Minister’s clearance. Most of these EGoMs, unsurprisingly, were headed by Pranab Mukherjee.
A recent book tries to portray Singh as a victim, manipulated by the Gandhis into doing their will. It does not explain why Singh acquiesced to this role and played along for 10 years. And as the constant sparring between the NAC and the PMEAC proved, Singh was no meek political puppet either.
He was merely reluctant to take decisions and stand by them. By passing the buck to GoMs and EGoMs, he chose to distance himself from responsibility and accountability.
And the few calls he did take turned out to be damp squibs. He risked his government to push the US-India nuclear deal in 2008. Not a single new watt of electricity has been added thereafter. As standby coal minister in UPA-I, he allocated mines to dodgy enterprises, through processes whose minutes have now gone missing.
The claim that Singh was some kind of passive victim of the Gandhis and the Congress holds no water. In 1972, when he joined the ministry of finance as an adviser, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. His appointments to the Planning Commission and other government organisations were all done under Congress regimes.
In the 1980s, Singh was asked to head the Reserve Bank of India by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. ThenPrime Minister P V Narasimha Rao appointed him finance minister in 1991 and Sonia made him the Prime Minister in 2004. Not bad for a victim of the Gandhis and Congress.
Rahul may or may not have wanted to snub Singh by missing dinner. But there’s nothing that Singh, as he walks off into the sunset of an extraordinary career propelled by Congress and Gandhi patronage, can quibble about. Has India’s democracy aided, or impeded, the pursuit of national unity, dignity and justice, and elimination of poverty? The battles are half-won. Keeping the nation together is perhaps the greatest achievement of Indian democracy, though a combination of force and persuasion has been used. Democracy has seriously attacked caste inequalities in the south, but in the north, the process has only recently acquired force. Mass poverty remains the greatest failure of Indian democracy. Since 1991, the rate of decline in poverty has accelerated, and a real measure of prosperity has reached the middle classes. But onefourth to one-third of India remains trapped in poverty…. The quality of Indian democracy generates a great deal of concern, and rightly so…. Comparative experience suggests that India’s democracy was unlikely to be stable. A Pakistani- or-Indonesian-style political history was more likely. These nations were, like India, desperately poor at the time of independence, and were unable to stabilise democracy in the first half-century of their post-independence history. We need to ask why Indian democracy has lasted so long, as much as what is wrong with it…. Comparative analysis makes clear that India’s democratic longevity is less a consequence of objective characteristics of Indian society, culture or economy — the factors normally invoked. Rather, it is mainly a consequence of politics.
From “Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy”