Nine-and-a-half years is a long time to be prime minister, and some amount of disenchantment is expected.
But even accounting for the mood of anti-incumbency, prime minister Manmohan Singh has been looking unusually embattled of late. A vituperative media, a combative opposition in election mode, dipping growth rates and galloping inflation, corruption, worsening law and order with rapes and communal violence, a foreign policy that is going nowhere much has gone wrong, and in popular perception at least, Singh is either to blame for it, or has not helped matters with his mild-mannered response.
It began, to recap, with l’affaire 2G telecom scam, which made Singh look politically weak and not quite in control.
But it is the coal scam that has done real damage to his reputation for personal honesty, his foremost political capital in the eyes of the chattering classes.
With the apex court indicting the government for manipulating CBI investigations into irregularities in coal block allocation, law minister Ashwani Kumar resigning over the issue, and crucial files of the case disappearing, Singh has lost his earlier sheen as an honest technocrat catapulted by circumstances into the big league. In popular perception these days, he is no better than other politicians who are desperate to cling to power at any cost.
It’s for the economic slowdown that Singh faces the most criticism. Ironical, isn’t it, for a man credited with opening India’s economy as finance minister in 1991, whose 1964 thesis about the need of export promotions for faster growth Amartya Sen had commended as “a lot wiser than mine”?
But then, as prime minister, Singh can’t escape blame for the slowdown in GDP growth (down to 5% this year from a peak of 9.5% in 2005-08), the high fiscal deficit (projected at 4.9%, up from around 3% in 2005-2008), and the plummeting rupee, down 22% between May and September 2013.
The charges of economic mismanagement against Singh do stick because the current problems can partly be traced back to the Rs40,000 crore stimulus package introduced in 2008-09 by the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Says BJP leader and finance minister in the NDA government, Yashwant Sinha: “The medicine for the disease was administered without providing a remedy for its side effects. So we had high inflation in following years. You cannot unleash such a huge amount in the economy without allocating at least some of it for capital expenditure.”
Indeed, inflation shot up to 8% in 2008-09 from 4.8% the year before. Economists say that the social sector legislations passed recently, especially the Food Security Bill, are fiscally irresponsible and will lead to similar problems.
So what has gone wrong with Singh of late? Has age caught up with him, or is it failing health — given that he underwent a second coronary bypass surgery in 2009? Is he just tired of battling the politicians jockeying to bring him down? Or is he being made a scapegoat, as some suggest, for events that he has no control over so that the Gandhi family emerges unscathed in the event the Congress does not do well in the coming elections? Just as happened with PV Narasimha Rao, the man Singh acknowledges as his mentor?
“My personal assessment,” says Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman of infrastructure consulting company Feedback Ventures, “is that age has caught up with him and he seems to have lost the drive to push through new ideas”.
But be it age or failing health, bureaucrats in the prime minister’s office report that there has been a definite slackening in Singh’s pace of work. They remember how, when he first became prime minister in 2004, he would be in office for 18 hours and discuss every line that he was supposed to sign.
They recall him sitting through and taking copious notes at meetings that stretched, sometimes, for hours. As a Congress leader says, “There is a vast difference between UPA1 and UPA2. Many ministries are lying dormant and bureaucrats are ruling the roost. A rot has set in.”
Others like Andre Beteille, eminent sociologist who has known Singh since the time they were teachers at Delhi School of Economics in the late 1960s, see other reasons for the decline. “He has been prime minister for too long without being a member of the Lok Sabha. In UPA1 it was understandable this thing [his becoming prime minister] came unexpectedly; he was a member of the Rajya Sabha and he continued to be so. In UPA 2 that is not excusable, that he did not seek election to the Lok Sabha.”
But then Manmohan Singh, despite being in government since the 1970s, is manifestly not a smooth-talking politician. “Even as finance minister, he was uncomfortable as a politician,” says Sanjaya Baru, who was his media advisor (2004-2008). “It was as leader of opposition [in the Rajya Sabha, from 1998 to 2004] that he became a politician. He cultivated friends across parties, including the Samajwadi Party. He had excellent personal friendships across the board. It was these personal equations that came in handy during the India-US civil nuclear deal during UPA1.”
The 2008 nuclear deal with the US was, for Beteille, Singh’s coming-of-age as a politician, given how he seemed to have been “very artful” in outwitting the CPI(M). “It was a bold move,” Beteille continues, even uncharacteristically so, “but he took the risk and it paid off”. For Feedback Ventures’ Chatterjee, too, it is “the last time he staked his personal will and reputation on something”. It was, says Planning Commission member BK Chaturvedi, Singh’s “biggest contribution” since it ended India’s nuclear apartheid.
But even here, Singh seems to have frittered away the gains. The nuclear liability act and other factors have held up the sale of nuclear reactors to India, and naturally, American nuclear energy companies — and the Obama administration are disenchanted. In fact, American companies’ confidence in India’s growth story is fast eroding. “They are worried. We made policy pronouncements but have been slow to implement them. The biggest negative factors are the uncertainty, unpredictability and lack of transparency.
Retrospective taxation and telecom scams have eroded our credibility,” says Ronen Sen, former ambassador to the US.
It is the same “development in UPA1 and decline in UPA2” narrative in Singh’s other foreign policy overtures. In his first tenure, Singh attempted to make strides in relations with Pakistan. “If there was a real possibility to resolve the problems of Jammu and Kashmir, both internally and externally, it was because of Singh’s capacity to explore new ideas and promote innovative thinking. A non-territorial settlement had become a distinct possibility because of such an approach,” says Amitabh Mattoo, international relations expert and director of the Australia India Institute.
But where are those initiatives now, with tensions escalating on the LoC?
Beteille feels the problem lies with the dual power structure itself: Singh in government and Sonia Gandhi in party. “It was a very good relationship and their services will be remembered. But it has gone on for too long and they should make way for others.”
Baru feels the problem arose because in 2009, Singh felt he had been the architect of the UPA’s coming back to power.
“But the Congress believed it was the victory of Rahul Gandhi.” There were other problems, says Baru. For instance, Singh wanted C Rangarajan as finance minister, but Sonia Gandhi had promised Pranab Mukherjee finance and Singh could not do anything.
The argument of a man beset by political compulsions does not, however, wash. Says Rajiv Kumar, senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research: “The PMO has to carry political legitimacy. This whole notion that political clout will be elsewhere and the PM will look into the technical aspects of government does not work. Besides, why has he carried on?
Once he realised he did not have any authority or political credibility, and measures he supported such as liberalising FDI in retail, did not happen, why did he not step aside?”
It’s an answer only Singh can give.
(With inputs from Ashutosh Kumar and Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr)