Dr. Manmohan Singh: Down but not out


Dr. Manmohan Singh effectively bid goodbye today; declaring that he is not a candidate for being PM in 2014; expectedly, extolling the virtues of Rahul and somewhat unexpectedly, unleashing a personal attack against Modi, asserting that he would make a “disastrous” PM.

Dr. Singh’s key virtue, as PM, was his personal honesty, in a polity seething with corruption.  Once Kejriwal (Aam Admi Party) upstaged Dr. Singh by donning the mantle of the most honest politician from mid-2013, there was little left to distinguish Dr. Singh from him. Both men ooze sincerity, humility, humble beginnings and a life spent striving to do good work. Where Kejriwal trumped the PM, was in his Gandhi like mass appeal and social mobilization skills. The good Doctor is a God fearing, economist and babu; adept at juggling numbers but completely at a loss at juggling people.

Dr. Singh will not be missed as PM. Peter’s Principle (1969) states that bureaucracies promote people to the level of their incompetence. Nothing could be truer than this in Dr. Singh’s case. He has been a nominal PM in UPA 2 (since 2009); seen sometimes in public; talked about occasionally but seldom heard and almost never listened to. Liberation from the extended coalition dharma of UPA 1 spelt his doom, as power effectively passed to the inner political core of the Congress.

It is a pity that resigning from a non-job seemingly never crossed his mind. But this was very much in keeping with the incremental approach to doing good, which afflicts all babus and keeps them slogging on, even when their incremental impact is marginal. The irony is that had he courageously displayed the gumption to walk out, he would have acquired the fire power to push through many of the reforms which continue to languish. First, bringing new Nuclear Power Contracts to fruition. Second fast forwarding UID and linked social protection cash transfers. Third, cracking the whip on getting highways built. Fourth, reeling in the coal mafia. Fifth, institutionalizing better water, waste and sanitation management. The list goes on of opportunities missed in the real sector.

It would, however, be unfortunate if Dr. Singh is forgotten or left to educate visiting foreign visitors on matters Indian. Dr. Singh’s expertise has always been in managing to walk the mean between economic fundamentalism and democratic acceptability. The art of the possible. This is what makes him an exceptional babu. His credibility overseas is far higher than his domestic ratings. He would make an exceptional, high level diplomat for spreading knowledge on the magnificent success of the Indian economy, using the time honored Indian instrument of Jugaad. A combination of problem solving skills based on the ability to spin interventions, which have no immediate international precedents, but fit the extant environment and adhere to basic economic principles.

The long term strategy to manage the external account since 1992 is one such glorious example. The cautious and selective opening up of sectors to FDI is another. The focus on higher technical education, which has endowed India with exceptional engineering, management, accountancy and pure science and social science skills, is a third example. All these are departures from the standard international prescriptions.

The India story is undersold overseas. The instability of a truly democratic, developing economy will never be the first choice of foreign investors. What we can offer them, as a trade-off for uncertainty in India, is the potential size of the Indian market. This is closely linked to the growth rate of the economy.

India has enjoyed near secular, high growth rates since 1995-96 barring downtrends during 2000-2003 with a tapering down in 2013. Growth slipped, not because India became corrupt or because the global opportunities faded nor due to the lack of entrepreneurial aggression. Growth slipped principally because no one was in charge at the top. Decision making slowed to a crawl. Oversight agencies like the CAG and the CBI became loose cannons; forum shopping between social activist supporters, the parliament and the government. The judiciary was forced to substitute for executive indecision, time and again, dangerously blurring the constitutional distinction between those who make, those who implement and those who adjudicate law. The cabinet became a set of fractious, narrow minded individuals, rather than a seamless group with common purpose and interests.

The PM is wrong to castigate Modi as a “disastrous” potential PM. India needs an empowered decision maker at the top to whip the polity into shape. Kejriwal is doing this in Delhi, using to full advantage his ingénue appeal and incorruptible past. We need a similar leader at the very top. Modi is most certainly a front runner for this task, as demonstrated by his history, his track record and the cord he strikes with those who are not “khas” (privileged) people. He is not the only one. Didi, Bhenji, Nitesh and Netaji are also products of grit and determination, albeit with limited popular appeal.

Dr. Singh was selected as PM on merits by his party. After a decade of meritocratic rule at the very top, even if it was optics more than reality, the aam admi’s and aurats (comprising 99% of the electorate) are unlikely to stomach a return to the rule of oligarchs and dynasties. As always, it is urban votes (25%) which are likely to presage this trend.

One hopes, that in the new government, post April 2014, merit will be honored, if defanged of political affiliations. Dr. Singh is an international asset and must continue to be used, in national interest, to further India’s international economic and governance dialogue. If inclusive growth is his concern, Dr. Singh cannot let transient political affiliations, stand in the way of participating, in what promises to be the golden dawn of inclusive growth in India: 2014 to 2030. 

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