With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signalling the end of his era after the upcoming general elections, the first drafts of his legacy will begin to be written in the days to come. Singh has claimed that history will judge him better than the contemporary media, but present evidence offers little to back that claim. Dipping economic growth, persistent inflation, high fiscal deficit, stagnation in manufacturing, inefficient welfare programmes, corruption scandals and the PM’s inability to rise above the shackles imposed by party and coalition compulsions, have marred the latter half of his 10-year stint. Singh, as the economist-turned-finance minister who led India into the globalised era through economic liberalisation, commanded wide respect and earned the gratitude of the country’s middle and upper classes after the country entered a high growth trajectory. But as Prime Minister, the imperatives of appearing strong, taking bold decisions, overcoming political opposition, and resolving competing agendas, seemed to overwhelm Singh.
It is precisely for this reason that Singh recalled the formalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal and the consequent end to India’s nuclear-outcast status as his finest moment. Leading from the front, Singh outwitted his alliance partner and long-time baiter, the CPM, which opposed the agreement citing ideological reasons. It is another matter that six years later, the gains from the deal are yet to fructify into cogent gains for the power sector. While Manmohan advanced his liberalisation agenda significantly, despite opposition from those advocating a more measured approach like Pranab Mukherjee and Jairam Ramesh, the perception that the UPA was moving slowly hurt his image the most. A resurgent activist lobby within the Congress flagged environmental and displacement issues while stalling mining and industrial projects. When the CAG red-flagged the huge loss to the exchequer in the doling out of 2G spectrum and coal blocks without auctioning, the judiciary began monitoring the investigations into alleged corruption in these allocations. Then came the civil society protests against endemic corruption and Singh never recovered.
Suddenly, his personal integrity and past glories did not suffice to silence the growing legion of critics. His silence was variously interpreted as conspiracy, confusion, helplessness and political inadequacy. But Manmohan can take credit for initiating people-friendly schemes like NREGA, Right to Education, Right to Information, food security and cash transfers, even when implementation continues to be a source of inefficiencies and fiscal deficit. The deference to Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council often tripped the constitutional scheme that placed the government in a position of primacy, but the Manmohan-Sonia team, at least in UPA I, was a curious, and workable, combination of welfare and neo-liberal agendas. In UPA II, the distance between Singh and the party grew, exposing the limitations of politically weak prime ministers. Even after Rahul’s public stand against the ordinance protecting convicted legislators from disqualification embarrassed him, Singh soldiered on rejecting the calls for resignation.
Friday’s press conference was one last attempt by Manmohan to refurbish his achievements and paint a bright picture of India’s achievements in the past 10 years. None of it probably matters, because the biggest challenge that his probable successors, Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi, will face is the rising grassroots demand for a new political culture and reforms in governance.
Beyond welfare schemes and growth figures, people are looking for qualitative changes; where Manmohan, Modi, Rahul, the Congress and the BJP continue to fall short is the inability to articulate a vision of alternative politics that people have begun to demand since 2011.