The contrast could not be starker. Twenty years ago this week, Manmohan Singh, then serving as finance minister to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, championed a bold slate of economic reforms that has transformed India in ways few could have imagined back then. Quoting Victor Hugo, the French writer, Singh dramatically declared that, “No power on Earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Flash forward to the present. Singh now occupies the prime minister’s office but instead of decisive acts of policy, he sits atop a rudderless government. The fecund sense of possibility has been replaced by a growing embattlement spawned by a corruption scandal that has landed his former telecommunications minister in jail and left him scarred politically. In the place of lionhearted proclamations, he is reduced to protesting – as he did a month ago in an interview with media editors – that “I am not helpless.” As one observer notes, Singh in 1991 was a man on a mission, while 20 years hence he seems a prime minister in hiding.
Earlier posts (here and here) have sifted Singh’s budget plans and just-concluded state-level elections for signs about his political fortunes. In the past few weeks, two other indicators have emerged: a much-anticipated Cabinet shake-up that utterly failed to live up to expectations, and the strange silence in New Delhi about the 20th anniversary of the economic reforms for which the prime minister has every right to claim ownership.
After a Cabinet reshuffle unveiled in January was widely panned as cosmetic and unimaginative, Singh promised a thorough house cleaning in the summer months. An extensive makeover would have injected desperately-needed fresh blood and new talent into a lethargic administration, as well as help turn a political corner by demonstrating that business as usual was no longer the norm in New Delhi. Yet the new line-up announced in mid-July failed to generate any sense of political dynamism at all. Senior ministers remained in place while mid-level portfolios were merely shifted about. Although a handful of new faces were brought in, the Cabinet retained its geriatric disposition, with the average age of ministers increasing from 61 to 65. Nor was anyone inducted who could give new life to critical items on the stalled economic reform agenda.
Moreover, the exercise served to underscore Singh’s ineffectualness. Just days before the reshuffle was rolled out, Mukul Roy, the junior railways minister, openly defied Singh’s order to visit a rail accident site in northeastern India. A confident, potent prime minister would have made him a conspicuous example of what happens to disobedient subordinates. Yet Roy survived the Cabinet shake-up, merely transferred to another portfolio with his minister of state rank intact.
Of course, the hapless lot in which Singh now finds himself is largely not of his own making. He is a person of undoubted integrity and honor, as well as genuine technocratic abilities. But he is not a natural politician; indeed, he has never won an election. Nor is he even in command of his own government, much less his own party – a point that was vividly registered this month. While Singh was at work on the Cabinet re-jig, Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress Party leader, used the occasion of Rahul Gandhi’s 41st birthday to trumpet Rahul’s qualifications for the prime ministership. The current prime minister reportedly took exception to the implication. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, another party stalwart, has also climbed aboard the Rahul bandwagon. In the media interview noted above, Manmohan Singh could only retort meekly that whenever the party “makes up its mind, I will be happy to step down.”
Singh’s position was further undermined when New Delhi’s rumor mills came alive with speculation that he could succeed Pratibha Patil as president – the titular and ceremonial head of state – after her term expires next July. The timing here could be significant since elections in the politically-important states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat will have taken place by mid-2012. If this is indeed the Congress Party’s game plan, it would allow Rahul Gandhi to gain two full years of experience as prime minister before having to submit his government to the electorate.
Singh’s political condition is the result of the awkward system of governance that has prevailed in New Delhi for the past seven years, but which seems especially dysfunctional over the last two. While he serves as the government’s front man, the real power belongs to Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother and the Congress Party’s risk-adverse head. Mrs. Gandhi does not share Singh’s reformist inclinations and is more given to market-distorting welfare spending than productivity-enhancing measures.
This state of affairs explains much – from the airbrushing of Narasimha Rao out of the party’s institutional memory, to the lack of progress on crucial economic reforms and the reticence about the transformational events of 1991. Despite a notable re-election victory two years ago, Singh’s government has since been unable to muster the political will to advance any significant initiative. A new report by the Macquarie Group, an Australian financial house, identifies some 80 key pieces of legislation now languishing in parliament. In recent weeks, prominent business leaders, including Ratan Tata, have warned that the lack of reforms is causing Indian companies to concentrate their investments abroad, a point that was punctuated by an India Today cover story titled “India Inc. goes global as government chokes economy.”
Barring unforeseen developments, Singh’s job as prime minister is safe for the coming year. But with each passing month of feckless policy-making, his ultimate legacy is more and more in jeopardy.