Who led the middle class up the garden path? Not the Prime Minister

Tuesday, 7 January 2014 - 6:44am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Manmohan Singh never promised the moon, yet the media and intelligentsia feel betrayed by him.

For a long time many in the Indian middle class believed that the country would benefit if only a neutral, educated and honest technocrat were to be at the helm of affairs and correct all distortions that mindless politicians have introduced into the polity. There is also another section which sincerely and strongly believes in benevolent and enlightened dictatorship. This is why, the Indian middle class, as reflected in the media and in the intelligentsia is angry with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The media and the intelligentsia feel betrayed by technocrat Singh in that he did not evict corrupt ministers from his Cabinet and that he did not do enough to assert himself against the ignorant Congress party. They are angry that he did not offer to quit or quit when there was challenge to his technocratic authority. They feel that he should have ignored the populist demands of the Congress and pressed on with economic reforms. They are deeply disappointed that he did not use his position as Prime Minister to establish the rule of the educated and talented middle class people in the country.

The demands and sentiments of the honest critics of Singh seem so sensible that it is difficult to fault them for their sense of unreality and their tacit undemocratic and elitist perspective. The expectations from Singh were not unrealistic because he fitted the bill of a technocrat from a middle class background. He understood economic problems and he did have some solutions and he did believe that he was right in his prognosis as well as prescription. And he also thought that if there were no political impediments from his own party and from the Opposition he would be able to bring in a satisfactory economic order. But Singh could not have done what he wanted.

So he did what he could. He did not promise a utopia. He was aware that there would be  need for plenty of negotiations and compromises and that it would not be an easy ride. He had to deal with his own party, with the allies and with the Opposition. The real world is untidy and it does not offer the clean matrix of an economic model, not that Singh was a dogmatic econometrist.

In ideal terms, Singh should not have accepted the job of Prime Minister in the first place. He was aware of the fact that he was not really popular in the party. It would be futile to argue whether he would have been chosen Prime Minister if Sonia Gandhi was not the undisputed president of the party and she did not prefer him. It is quite unlikely that he could have lobbied for the top job because he would have been laughed out of it if he had done so. Singh was aware that he was chosen because of Sonia Gandhi and that her decision had the full support of the party. It is possible that in the snake pit that the Congress is, the caucus could well have chosen him even if there was no Sonia Gandhi. It happened with PV Narasimha Rao. The Congress chose Rao in 1991, immediately after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, because of the corrosive rivalries among the senior leaders of the party. Rao once in the saddle turned the tables and controlled the party. Singh lacked the political skills to do so, and he seems to have been aware of his limitations.

And within the restricted space that was available to him, he did what he wanted to do. Singh’s pro-United States sensibility was out in the open. He has believed and he said so in so many ways on many occasions, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the partnership with the United States is good for India. The Communists opposed this in their own outdated and obdurate way, and the BJP was angry that he was showing his pro-American bias unapologetically. He boosted India-US partnership through the civil nuclear deal though nothing much has come of it. Singh also plotted the India’s foreign relations strategy with the American factor in mind. He might be wrong in this, but he stuck to it. He also convinced Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi about this.

What seems to irritate and disappoint the middle class is that he did not persist with the same tenacity with economic reforms. But then Singh is not a market fundamentalist. He is not a doctrinaire free market advocate like his friend Jagdish Bhagwati, nor is he a welfare and developmental economist of the Amartya Sen variety. He was not against subsidies per se, and he did not have any hesitation in exposing the Indian industry and business to internal competition. He did not have much faith in indigenous technology and he was only too willing to buy it off the shelf from world markets. He did not believe in the old orthodoxy of self-sufficiency, which the BJP has adopted with such nationalist fervour. So he is not unhappy with the economic outcomes because here is the man who knows that there is no such thing as a constant upward curve of economic growth. He does not see reversals and setbacks as failures. Singh is a practical economist. He is not shattered when politics impedes economics. He is perhaps a wise man because he does not believe in perfection, either in his own or that of his government. He is puzzled that his fellow-middle class critics do not see the situation for what it is.

The author is editorial consultant with dna

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