The Faux Vic­tim­hood of Man­mo­han Singh

The Economic Times - - Front Page - Ab­heek Bar­man

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”

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