Millennium Post

What was on the man’s mind?

This op-ed items are often called opinion pieces in news publication parlance. But today’s piece is born not out of the usual certitude that people exude when their opinions become crystal clear and have a razor-sharp edge. But today this writer is confused.
The Asia edition of Time magazine has this week (on newsstands from tomorrow) put Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the cover with singularly unedifying adage: Underachiever. My confusion begins from there.
Should I be outraged by the fact that our PM has been called by an international news outlet as one with less achievements? Or should I express my elation that he has been found out to be man below the mark?
For, if he would have achieved to do all that he set out to do in 1991 under the tutelage of a crafty and shifty prime minister, the late Narasimha Rao, we could have been a ‘Greece’ or a ‘Spain’ or even the ‘USA’ today. This British-trained economist is a rare commodity for being possibly the only ‘Keynesian’ (as one of his former aides has described him to be) who won the Adam Smith prize.
John Maynard Keynes was a statist, welfarist economist who laid down an economic reform path that had a ‘human face’ as the targeted object in the World War II ravaged Europe and Asia. Adam Smith, who preceded him in time, on the other hand, was an ‘animal spirit’ man who found the ‘market to be the ultimate emancipator’ and a preacher of
laissez faire
Possibly, this duality that embodied Manmohan Singh early in his life gave him a bit of quality of a Janus-faced politician who could thunder against the oppressive North as the South Commission chairperson yesterday, but today could tell you to leave behind all economic regulations and let the predators prevail as the finance minister of the country.
Now, nobody here is advocating that the inefficiencies of the licence-permit raj should have continued to rule India. There was no denying either the requirement of increasing national wealth. But Singh never quite ever argue how this wealth was to be distributed. Predictably, he would have had the omniscient ‘market’ to take care of that. So much so, Narasimha Rao, his then boss had to remind him in public that there was a need to objectify the ‘human face,’ who also is a voter in a democracy.
Arguably, India was capital starved in early-1990. So there was a need for creating an environment by which international capital could enter the country. But the problem with capital needs to look at ‘return on investment.’ That is its proximate goal wherever it goes. But our Manmohan Singh would not even allow the government to target the investments into areas that accrued returns in a longer run.

This was even more surprising that this politico-economic survivor was an adviser to a Indira Gandhi, who despite all her betrayals, would direct domestic investment to areas that were starved. She would do it with a leverage of a carrot and stick policy that Singh must have seen in action. But when his turn came, he would not lift a finger in having the controls on the incoming capital.
I have seen in China that the rapacious foreign investors would not be allowed to raise their voices and was directed to locations that the government chose. Agreed, the lucrative coastal region was where they were allowed to first settle and net their billions, but when a Hu Jin Tao talked about ‘harmonious’ development, the foreign and domestic investors spoke in unison with the State policy.
Of course, there is guanxi (the dynamic of personalised relationships of influence). But there was also the fear of exposure and retribution. China did not sell off their public sector organisations at random. And today these State-run units have become so big and so rich that they are buying off the private sector companies and making them a part of their portfolio.
In India the public sector was allowed to decay over time in the name of fiscal correction which stopped any infusion fresh State capital.
Singh also exhibited a very high threshold for corruption both during his stint in the Rao government and now, when he himself is at the helm. In a recent interview given to a prominent newspaper, he has talked about 'weak institutions' in the country. He has tried to absolve himself of any responsibility for this phenomenon by making it seem to be a historical process.
But who else is responsible for that but the man, who has all along his life has remained in government irrespective of political regime from among a sundry economic advisers to the ministries to be the chief economic adviser to the government. He also has been a deputy chairman of the Planning Commission; a governor of the Reserve Bank of India; a man who should have warned Rajiv Gandhi about the precarious foreign exchange position that were otherwise funding Gandhi’s foreign fads. This singular inaction by Singh had cost the otherwise feckless Chandrashekhar government the dishonour of bartering the nation’s gold reserve. What was on Singh’s mind then?

Pinaki Bhattacharya is a senior journalist, and editorial consultant, Millennium Post.
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