Millennium Post

‘PM should have learnt art of biting’

Will history be kind to Manmohan Singh? Yes, believes Prof G K Chadha, former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and now president of South Asian University, who was one of the earliest students of Manmohan Singh. He spoke at length about the prime minister’s legacy. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Do you think history will be kinder to Manmohan Singh?
I personally agree with the PM’s assessment about himself. It needs to be explained both in the historical and political context. Historically, he has been a very good academician. Everybody knows it. Way back in the 1960s, he was my teacher, when I was a student of economics in Punjab University. What an outstanding teacher he was! How much pains he used to take in delivering lectures… How much feedback he would give to students in case they submitted notes to him!
Then he took up numerous government assignments. He has experience in several fields: academic, non-academic, bureaucratic, administrative, advisory – he was the administrative director of the South-South Commission. He was never a second-rated economist. But there is another context, and that is historical. The accidental context is that he plunged into politics. He was not cut out for politics. Imagine what happens if a person who has spent his whole life in academics is suddenly asked to get into politics. He also fought elections from South Delhi but lost – not because he was a weak candidate but because he did not know politicking. Still, I will give credit that at that time (2004) there were not many choices. The nation clearly expressed its choice in favour of Sonia Gandhi but she thought that here is the person who will deliver much better than anybody.
Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, said that the former US president knew so little and accomplished so much. He knew little since he was from show business. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, knew so much as an academic, a bureaucrat and a finance minister. People expected him to accomplished much more.

Any objective assessment would say that no person could have withstood circumstances the way Manmohan Singh did after inheriting the administrative, political and policy regime of the kind he did. He took a plunge into a regime which has its own infirmities, problems and inherited structures. Can anyone say that corruption only started in 2007-2008? Can anyone say that bureaucratic lethargy (and) delays did not exist in the past? Can anyone say that when he came it was ‘Ram rajya’ and after him it became ‘Ravan rajya’?

He is an unbelievably clean person. He is the one who told former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao that you should not only be honest but look honest too. Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh was caught in the circumstances. A coalition government has its own limitations. You cannot apply the stick to everybody because the survival of the government is important. A democratic country cannot afford to have a government today and not have one tomorrow. He was a victim of adjustments and circumstances. In some matters he was helpless. In my assessment, he did all that he could. Signing of the nuclear treaty with the US was one of the greatest achievements of his regime. He withstood the pressure from the Left because he had a vision for India over the next 30 years. He also introduced many innovative legislations (MNREGA and RTI, among others). Even the South Asian University was his brainchild – it was to bring students of the eight countries together and share each other’s experiences. He is a gentleman but he paid the price for his gentle behaviour.

Was the prime minister extra concerned about his legacy?
You are presuming that he would leave. But in politics anything can happen any time. Even if he leaves in May 2014, he will not leave with a sense of regret. He started career as a lecturer and gradually climbed to the position of PM, doing as much as he could. He is not leaving behind a national budget punctured by liabilities. India has garnered a tremendous amount of goodwill also. Look at how we have maintained relations with Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. There have been agreements with so many countries. Even in case of relations with Pakistan, he made certain things possible. People in Pakistan have a high regard for him. The same is true for Bangladesh and many other countries of South Asia.

How has the ‘Manmohan decade’ shaped the institution of the prime minister?
His style of functioning is not offensive. He is a mild and incurably gentle person. He sees things are done without any great noise, acrimony or reprimanding people. But as his student, I think he should have learnt the art of biting. The bite was certainly missing.

So, does he leave behind a troubled legacy?
Who knows? Had he not been at the helm of affairs, there would have been a deeper, troubled legacy. When you take over some position, you inherit a
certain set of problems. It depends upon whether those problems are remediable or not. Every political leader and party should learn from the mistakes. He inherited the position from former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In policy terms he revised some of what BJP had been doing.

Many observers feel Manmohan Singh would have gained a lot in his stature had he left after his first term?

I totally disagree. The first tenure was essentially training, a stage in which he picked up vocabulary of politics. Those five years were precious in framing his tactical style and understanding how internal affairs are to be conducted. But, all said and done, the reality is that although much progress has taken place on economic, social and other fronts, much more needs to be done as India is a huge country. When he became PM in 2004, he inherited many problems. The most important problem that any PM in years to come is going to face is that of regional political aspirations. It is only in recent years that regional political outfits have become so demanding.

Some people think he was better as a finance minister than as a PM. Which of his roles would history remember more?
I think this question is a little unfair to him. His contribution as FM has been very remarkable. He is the one who opened the doors of economy to world competition. Remember, the growth rate picked up very well. When he began (his tenure) as PM, the economy made phenomenal progress. Once it touched nine per cent, we started dreaming about double digit growth for the first time. How can anyone forget that legacy? That optimism was generated by new policy initiatives. But we should not forget that we are a democratic society. There are statutory institutions and democratic institutions. In a coalition government with dozens of political parties, you can’t meet everybody’s political aspirations. There were severe limitations. History should be fair to say that constraints within which a PM has to function were quite severe in case of Manmohan Singh.

Do you think scholars might revise their opinion about Manmohan Singh?
I will certainly give credence to this kind of belief. As they say, history repeats itself. In this case, I would say history reassesses itself. A time might come when more difficult circumstances under which Manmohan singh functioned (will come to light). I think history in decades to come will write that this man delivered as much as he could.

Would you remember him as an economist or a politician?
I would say he is an outstanding economist but half-prepared politician.

By arrangement with Governance Now
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