Millennium Post

Decade of political impotence

When Manmohan Singh rose to deliver his Independence Day speech, a fleeting thought could have crossed his mind that this might be his last bow before the nation. It probably also occurred to him that the scene could have been very different if he had
followed his own instincts on economic reforms during the last 10 years and not surrendered to the contrary views within his own party.

If he had taken off in 2004 from where he was in 1996 by resuming the pursuit of pro-market policies, it is unlikely that the country would have been in such dire straits as now when he has had to say that there wouldn’t be a return to the economic crisis of 1991, which necessitated the reforms.
Instead, like his claims in the aftermath of the corruption scandals that he isn’t a lame duck, or his subsequent promise to revive the ‘animal spirits’ in the economy, the man known for his honesty is no longer believed. Or, he is seen as helpless before the various forces – economic, political (in the shape of a challenge from a brazen adversary) and diplomatic (border skirmishes) – which are buffeting the country.

The helplessness perhaps goes back to his selection as an ‘accidental’ prime minister, as he once remarked, in 2004. As someone known as a political lightweight, he was apparently too diffident right from the start to assert himself. As for the reforms, he might have been somewhat apologetic about his right-wing views, surrounded as he was by the old-time Congress ‘socialists’. Their clout was also enhanced by the realisation that Sonia Gandhi was at their head.

Had Manmohan Singh been grittier, he might still have pushed through his ‘neo-liberal’ views if he felt strongly about them. Moreover, had he been a tactician, he would have been known that, having chosen him to be the prime minister, the Congress president would not be able to replace him in a hurry.  

But, if he preferred the safer course, the reason was his risk-averse nature, honed by his years in government service, starting with being an adviser in the ministry of foreign trade in 1969 and then rising through the ranks to be the government’s chief economic adviser, Reserve Bank governor, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and finance minister.
Even if his career graph, including a stint as a professor in the Delhi School of Economics, has been exemplary, especially since it has been topped by his becoming the prime minister, it is obvious that history will not be kind to him. More than anything else, he will be seen to have squandered an excellent opportunity by the failure to push through the reforms, which would have not only negated any possibility of the current atmosphere of doom and gloom to overtake the country, but also enabled the Congress to build on its electoral successes of 2004 and 2009.

That there has been a belated realisation that the reforms are the need of the hour is evident from initiatives such as easing the norms for FDI in the retail sector, but it is now probably too late. As a result, the chances of the Congress falling behind the BJP’s tally of Lok Sabha seats in 2014 are high. The fault for the setback will primarily of Manmohan Singh’s since he is the head of the government. But, it will not be one of intention but of will.

It is besides the point to blame the Left for the stalling of reforms between 2004 and 2008 because it is for the prime minister to implement the policies which he thinks are best for the country. If he cannot have his way, he should step down. Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh did neither. As a result, not only did the communists dictate terms, his acquiescence must have convinced both friends and foes about his malleability. Surprisingly, he showed an element of firmness on the nuclear deal, but only just, for he retreated when Sonia Gandhi expressed the view that the communists had a point in their opposition.  Manmohan Singh said at the time that the world would not end if the deal was not signed. It was obviously Rahul Gandhi’s endorsement of the measure, and the support extended to the government by the Samajwadi Party (in lieu of the Left), which led to the clinching of the deal.
If the prime minister had shown similar firmness about his economic views, then the reforms might have remained on track.

Instead, he allowed the extra-constitutional, left-of-centre National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi to create an atmosphere, which enabled two successive environment ministers, Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan, to rob the reforms of their momentum, as the economist, Prof. Arvind Panagariya, has said. Now, there will be ample opportunity for him to repent at leisure.
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