Peas in a pod

It is curious that India and the United States – the two most important democracies in the world today, have in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barrack Obama, chief executives who, it turns out, share traits that the Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne, Jr., identified as Obama’s hallmark, namely, being at once risk-averse and competitive.

In the three weeks this writer recently spent in America, it was impossible to escape the incessant drumbeat in the media about the  economy on the skids, raising of the national debt ceiling amidst rancorous partisanship, the loss of “Triple A” credit rating, and an ascendant China, fearing its huge investment in some 13% of the US treasury bonds issued being reduced to waste paper, furiously wagging a finger at Washington, demanding Americans  live within their means. (In all this gloom, amusement was afforded visiting Indians and NRIs, at least, by the website of a major Indian newspaper heralding an Indian as having “downgraded the United States”!) Meanwhile, at the centre of the hubbub, Obama stayed on the sidelines, mostly disengaged, even as Republican Party right-wingers called him names. It felt like home.

With scams and scandals of all kinds coming home to roost within the Congress party portals, bad economic news dogging his every step,  Manmohan Singh, other than sleep-talking through much the same Red Fort speech he has made the last seven years on Independence Day, has stayed mum, barricading himself in 7 Race Course Road, a mute spectator to things going horribly wrong for his government and for him personally. Except, unlike Obama, the Indian Prime Minister is no mass leader nor a political visionary; even less is he an orator able to turn around a disbelieving public. His muffled, mealy-mouthed, mumbling that passes for public speeches actually sets many a teeth on edge. Dr. Singh hopes to keep warbling the same old song without taking any follow-up actions he has been promising these many years to implement second generation economic reforms desperately needed to shift the economy to a higher plane?

But transforming India into a powerful growth engine, at a minimum, requires overhauling archaic labour laws and instituting new land acquisition norms in order to give fillip to industry, and boosting the rural economy by freeing the agricultural sector from export and other restrictions, none of which is being done because of fear of the faux socialists — Messrs Mulayam Singh, Amar Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and Company, and the unpredictable politics of Mayawati. It is another matter, that these worthies have, so far, been held in check by Manmohan Singh    manipulating of the Central Bureau of Investigation corruption cases against them. But general economic up-gearing and CBI threats nevertheless entail risks because over-done, these measures may persuade these leaders to join with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led opposition to bring down the Congress Party coalition government.  And risk-taking of any kind, especially with so much at stake, goes against Manmohan Singh’s over-cautious nature and the party chief, Sonia Gandhi’s plans. After all he is a career bureaucrat hoisted, for reasons of zero-threat to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and his personal malleability, to the top post in government, an arrangement that permits Mrs. Gandhi to keep her hand on the steering wheel, a control now reinforced by her chosen civil servant, Pulok Chatterji, replacing T.K.A Nair as Principal Secretary to the PM. Acquiescing in this scheme of Sonia rule shows up Manmohan Singh as an ambitious person, happy in a Mephistophelian deal he has cut for himself.

The corporate bosses’ understanding of the turgid pace of economic reforms is limited by the metaphor they have used.  Y.C. Deveshwar of Indian Tobacco Company in the August 2 meeting with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji reportedly ventured that the problem lay with two drivers — one pressing the accelerator, the other the brake. It’s a view similar to the Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy’s that the government’s “culture of taking slow decisions” is attributable to “two leaders in the set-up”. While such takes on reality seem reasonable at first glance, they are wrong in their essentials, in the main, because they assume that Manmohan Singh is driven by the desire for systemic change. The fact is he never had his foot on the accelerator, even as Sonia Gandhi never lifted hers from the brake pedal for fear that any forward movement will undermine the ruling party’s pseudo-Leftist moorings. Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” (Remove Poverty)-brand of crude populism masquerading as socialism, is the true ideological lodestar of the Congress Party, not the quaint Fabian Socialist tenets that animated Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies. Manmohan Singh, the ultimate apparatchik and beneficiary of the system, in the event, has a disincentive to burnish his reformist credentials, such as they are, if that involves crossing the Party line. Sonia Gandhi, on her part, may understand little about socialism other than that it has kept her family in the clover for a very long time. But it is sufficient reason for her to stay with the socialist rhetoric, statist solutions, and a horrendous state apparatus, which together have turned corrupt practices and mis-governance into a thriving cottage industry.

Where corruption is concerned, Manmohan Singh and Obama are somewhat similarly placed.  Personally clean, Obama owes his meteoric rise from a grassroots organizer in Chicago to the corrupt Democratic Party  political machine ruthlessly run, gangster style, first by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who bequeathed the machine to his son, the even longer serving Richard Michael Daley, whose brother, William J Daley, incidentally, is Obama’s White House Chief of Staff.

Manmohan Singh may not be corrupt himself, but that is small consolation considering he is presiding over, a government that, going by the sheer extent, scale and magnitude of the loot indulged in by his party members and cabinet colleagues, is patently the most corrupt in independent India’s history. The muck has long ago stuck to the Prime Minister’s escutcheon. So, when he repeatedly declares that the corrupt will face punishment, who takes him seriously?

[Published in ‘The Asian Age’& The Deccan Chronicle’, August 17, 2011, at www.asianage.com/columnists/peas-pod-210 ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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