Dr. Manmohan Singh, by his own reckoning, is “an accidental prime minister”. That he has no leadership credentials worth talking about, is not a surprise. Install a career economic bureaucrat — he has been successively adviser to the commerce minister, economic adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – reward for supporting the Emergency, deputy chairman, planning commission, finance secretary, governor, Reserve Bank of India, and financé minister — at 7, Race Course Road, and what you get is Dr Singh, the perfect stopgap PM – something the Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi apparently desired. He has all the obvious virtues. He willingly takes dictation, uncomplainingly accepts everyday humiliations heaped on him as a nominated PM without a political base or constituency, by hard-bitten politicians and cabinet colleagues, and is ready to vacate his post in a trice.
The trouble is Dr Singh’s reputation as the Great Economic Reformer is also bogus. As a senior economic ministry official present at the meetings recalls, when he was asked by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1992 to produce a “revolutionary” budget, Manmohan Singh offered a draft that was “budget as usual”. An infuriated Mr. Rao, threw down the document and curtly ordered his finance minister to do what was asked of him, namely, configure a scheme to dismantle the license-permit raj and connect the Indian economic system to the globalizing economy. Luckily for his reputation, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s initiative worked, and Dr Singh acquired the halo.
It is revealing that in his so far seven years stewardship of the nation, Dr. Singh has not progressed the country beyond the 1992 liberalization threshold. Promises apart, there have been no second stage economic reforms, no revision of labour laws, no new land acquisition norms, no easing of the bureaucratized functioning of the state to enable business and industry to really take-off and produce wealth for the country (as has happened in China), no nothing. Par for the course, because Dr Manmohan Singh does best when he is given orders that he can implement, but there’s no Narasimha Rao to provide guidance and take political responsibility, only a fractious National Advisory Council running interference, speaking at will, in different tongues, and advancing disparate mainly statist agendas under the aegis of Sonia Gandhi, who has nothing to offer Dr. Singh by way of policy direction or content. Absent a sustained push by the government, such traction as the hugely innovative Indian industrial and business sectors were able to generate, could be maintained for only so long. Predictably, the previously high economic growth rate Dr. Singh ballyhooed to cover up for his do-nothing approach, has dipped to the 7.2% level, and slumping.
With Manmohan Singh at the helm, the inevitable has come to pass elsewhere as well. With the central political will and programmatic thrust missing, foreign and national security policies have, for some time now, been auto-piloting into the doldrums. An opinionated National Security Adviser – M.K. Narayanan, who knew little about strategic issues, understood even less, but had strong views about everything and was particularly susceptible to American flattery and blandishments that secured for the US the nuclear deal, was replaced by the smooth-talking Shiv Shankar Menon, who was ushered into the post straight from the Foreign Secretary’s seat. At External Affairs, meanwhile, Minister S.M. Krishna spends more time, it is said, adjusting his wig in his vast office than in running the Ministry, assuming he is aware of what his senior officers are up to. This last cannot be vouched for because NSA Menon at the PMO continues to run foreign policy, in the main, because Nirupama Rao, who succeeded him simply does not have the gumption to cut him off. The result is one of the weakest MEA setups in years – an out-of-his-depth Minister relying on a Foreign Secretary with a not so stellar career graph overseeing satraps manning the regional desks who are conflicted but wary enough to also report to the NSA. In all these shenanigans, what’s missing are any clear directives from the Prime Minister, the PMO, or even the NSA. Having barely survived the civilian nuclear deal with the United States in 2008 and then stepping into a storm he had unwittingly unleashed at home owing to concessions he allegedly made to his Pakistani counterpart, Reza Gilani, at Sharm al-Sheikh, Manmohan Singh is in no mood to take chances.
On the other side of South Block, sits the Defence Minister, the very proper A.K. Antony, Buddha-like, mouthing Boy Scout homilies to military commanders, working on a one-point principle: No defence deal with the slightest trace of corruption. In the event, the well-oiled payoffs system has gone deeper underground, doling out rewards to helpful uniformed Service officers and Defence Ministry officials alike. Alas, how can a bordello do business with the Madame insisting there can be no hanky-panky? It has eventuated in purchases of, for instance, the M-4777 howitzer from the US Foreign Military Sales programme where Washington plays the middleman. Except India has ended up with less effective artillery to outfit the new offense-capable Mountain Divisions at a higher price than the light, long-range gun Singapore Kinetics Limited, blacklisted for minor bribery, had offered, inclusive of simulators and assembly line relocated to India at no additional cost.
As the government lurches from scam to scandal and Manmohan twiddles his thumbs, Home Minister C. Chidambaram, sensing the vacuum, has busily extended his turf, managing to make himself at once the intelligence and the internal security czar. Except his bureaucratic empire-building has not produced results. The National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid) is only partially functional because the reluctance of the intelligence agencies to share information hides behind flaws in the system interlinks. The National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), some three years after 26/11 is still at the talking stage, a “concept paper” doing the rounds, Chidambaram doing nothing to inject a sense of urgency into the proceedings. On the Naxal front there is desultory operations underway, except with army encampments especially in Jharkhand and Chattisgarh portions of the “red corridor” – the one big innovation and success story, Maoist excesses are tapering off in that region, signal for the concerned agencies of government to slip into infructuous debates, for instance, over whether and how to employ combat aircraft in anti-Naxal operations, which has the Air Force fuming. But, didn’t the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, pitching for the Hawk jet trainer some years back, justify this multi-billion dollar acquisition from Britain on the basis that this aircraft could also be deployed in the COIN (COunter INsurgency) role?
Half way into its second term, the UPA-II government is paralyzed and the country’s foreign and external and internal security policies are in a state of petrified animation. A non-functioning PM, a laid back External Affairs Minister, a corruption-fixated Defence Minister, and an aggrandizing Home Minister, may make for a dramatic tableau, but not for successful policy or effective governance.
[Published in ‘The New Indian Express’, June 16, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/weak-pm-limp-policy/284622.html ]