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BW Businessworld

Maybe A Change Of Guard At The Centre?

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The outgoing prime minister is an oxymoron; a shy public figure. He has managed to be one for almost a quarter century. How did he achieve that? It was not too difficult while he was finance minister. He had to perform in public when he presented the budget to Parliament once a year; but apart from that, he did not have to show himself to the people too often. While I was with him, in his first two years, he was actually quite good. He came passionately to believe in fiscal rectitude and in liberalisation, and defended them with vigour. Once he was thrown a challenge by Jyoti Basu, the chief minister of West Bengal: come and debate your reforms with me in Calcutta. Manmohan Singh went. He gave such a powerful speech that Jyoti Basu said to him, “You are so good that you may convince us some day.”

Compare that Manmohan Singh with the Singh of today; the decline in public presence is palpable. He has been limp for so long that the public has come to believe he was always so; actually, he was not. He became low profile and inarticulate later. It was not the effect of old age. I have also seen him at a press conference he gave in Pittsburgh after the G20 summit in 2008. He was clear and assertive, in control – much like in old times. The hand-wringing diffidence that became his trademark in recent years was a mask; he adopted it as part of his prime ministerial role.

Why did he adopt such a personality, uncharacteristic of himself and unsuited to his status? One explanation is given by Sanjaya Baru in his recent book, The Accidental Prime Minister. He says that Manmohan Singh was required to play this subaltern role by the Family. He describes the tussle between himself and Ahmed Patel after Rahul Gandhi called on Manmohan Singh on the latter’s birthday in 2007. After the meeting, Patel gave Baru a statement to release to the press, saying that Rahul had asked Manmohan Singh to extend the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to all districts of the country. Baru told Ahmed to put it out himself.  He also sent a text message to a friendly journalist saying that MGNREGA was Manmohan Singh’s birthday gift to the nation. The SMS travelled back to Manmohan Singh, who told off Baru: “I do not want you to project my image.” Baru did not last long in his job after that.

It may be that the overweening control of the Family turned Manmohan Singh into a sissy, and made him adopt policies that he disagreed with. It may also be that he was more stamped upon after than before 2009. But the ballooning fiscal deficits, the ever-rising procurement prices of wheat and rice, the growing mountains of foodgrains, the reckless expenditure on the public distribution system and the employment scheme, and the resulting corruption — all these began in the first term of the United Progressive Alliance. They were most likely Manmohan Singh’s own favourites; the Family was not their sole proprietor. He has been a reckless populist, and would have been without the Family’s help. They may have been equally attached to these follies, but they were his own.

And populism was not his only frailty; he was ineffective even in areas where the Family was not there to rein him in — for instance, in science and technology policy. Over the decade, he gave at least a couple of hundred speeches to government scientists, applauding and encouraging them. But government laboratories remained as useless to the country as ever; he did nothing to make them more productive. He was not a great speaker; but he was a much better achiever.

Many are worried and alarmed that Narendra Modi may be the next Prime Minister. His inaction during Gujarat riots is the basis for concern. But at least in economic policy, the country deserves a break from the departing Prime Minister; whatever economic errors Modi makes, he will take long to overtake Manmohan Singh. He will not have to work hard to do better than his predecessor; if he renounces communalism, he has got a great chance to serve the nation.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 19-05-2014)