Millennium Post

It's lonely at the top

Our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is  a respected man; at least to those who dabble in economics. While studying Indian economics in college I referred to Singh’s article in the Economic Journal on export promotion and import substitution written in the early 60s. In the age of Nehru there was a curious thought that to conserve foreign exchange a nation has the either-or option between export promotion and import substitution. However as a student in the late 70s we were proud that an economist was working in shaping up the government policies.

Rajiv Gandhi brought him back from the post of the governor of the Reserve Bank of India to the Planning Commission. The mischievous view was that Rajiv did not want any Sikh – some members of the community responsible for his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination – in any critical post. Relatively the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission was less important a post than the one in RBI.

Manmohan Singh’s big break came when Narasimha Rao became India’s Prime Minister. Rao wanted a non-political economist to head the finance ministry. On hindsight we know why. Rao had the vision and political maturity to understand what were the factors for the Indian economic woes. He did not want a mind made up in the Nehru-Indira faith to come as his finance minister. Reportedly his first choice, a brilliant I G Patel was not available. Manmohan was available. The rest is history.
Media and those who write quick histories are short on time to research and long on rhetoric. Thus when Narasimha Rao was out of power and politics, ignored was his masterly contribution as the leader who unleashed a nearly comatose elephant into a rampaging one. So fatherhood for a booming Indian economy fell on Manmohan Singh who quietly enjoyed the same. Nobody ever cared to piece together the role of the leader who bulldozed all political and vested interests and created a new India from the ashes of Nehru-Indira policies.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi is a keen observer of characters. Despite Manmohan Singh flourishing under Narasimha Rao she knew that Singh is a pliable person whom Rao could use as a front. Despite her careful steps to eliminate even the memory of Rao from the party she chose Singh as her Shikhandi. Singh, too, did not fail her. He never attempted to sidestep his mentor politically or administratively. Singh remained an unassuming number one barring certain occasions.
The first time Singh asserted himself was over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. However the hectic political activity that helped his government to win the trust vote then certainly had been planned with active participation of the Congress president. Singh never had any voice within the party. But it suited the party to push Singh to the front. The strategy and a continued booming economy helped Congress win more than 200 seats and come back to power in 2009.

And see the political knots that tied Congress thereafter. The 2009 victory led to an arrogance that reminded the country of the older days of the Nehru-Gandhi family. India today is more democratic than one likes to accept. The young are restless and willing to experiment. For them loyalty to a particular family even though pushed to the hilt by pliant media and rich spin-doctors was meant to backfire. Singh could have been useful had they cared to use him. But they thought mild mannered Singh is a mere showpiece. Now the cataclysm has happened. The economy is tottering, thanks to lack of leadership and governance.  India has an intelligent and articulate finance minister. But he reports to a Prime Minister who is an ornamental leader. More important in times like this the leader must come forward. Sadly the Singh that had worked in 2008 is not the Singh that India has today. Age might have caught up with Prime Minister Singh but that is one insignificant reason for his failure in 2013. Several scandals, which rocked his government, did certainly dent the clean image of Manmohan Singh. Nobody believes that Singh could be a willing participant to the intransigencies, including for the loss of Coal files, but certainly we all believe that he was not the master of the government he is leading. The political campaign to position the family’s heir apparent too did not help. This diluted Manmohan Singh’s authority. Finally the open admittance that Singh will not continue beyond 2014 has hurt his authority. Similar whisper campaign by Advani loyalists in 2004 against Atal Bihari Vajpayee had helped Congress in no small way.

Given the background, the present one and the historical one, the environment is so much loaded against Singh that he could not have made any inspiring statement to help the economy. He could not have said the immense negative effect of the food bill. He could not have articulated, as did the outgoing RBI governor or his finance minister Chidambaram that the seeds of poison were planted earlier when a political heavy weight was his finance minister.

Nobody loves to end up as a loser. Neither does Manmohan Singh, an honest man presiding over a chaos called cabinet. Nor do those who have followed Singh’s career and admired him from far away. But so is politics. Singh’s honesty, erudition and simplicity has now been sacrificed in the quagmire of internal politics of the party he joined in 1991. As a person he does not deserve this. Sadly this is what happens when you are in the wrong company and cannot assert your leadership role.

The author is a communication professional

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