Given his falling personal popularity ratings, the inability of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to regain political initiative from a divided Opposition and faced with an unfriendly media that remains enamoured of non-governmental activists, it is not surprising that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to use his eighth Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort both as a report card and a reality check. The fact is that Dr Singh has much to be proud of as prime minister. Not only has he given India seven years of unprecedented economic growth, with its ups and downs, but he has also made the growth process more inclusive, financing major programmes for rural development and employment, health and education. His claim that the UPA has prevented communal conflict in the face of provocations from terrorists is well founded. The future will judge Dr Singh’s most important achievement as being his government’s ability to steer the Indian economy through difficult global waters — something for which he still gets less credit than he deserves. So it is not surprising that he began his Red Fort address by drawing the nation’s attention to India’s ability to tide over choppy waters. In this context he called for national unity and political stability to overcome external challenges and this call is worthy of favourable consideration by the Opposition, which still has three years to go before it can seek to unseat the government.
The prime minister also addressed squarely and fairly issues of governance in matters of inflation and corruption. His plea to political activists like Anna Hazare not to resort to undemocratic forms of protest and allow Indian Parliament to take a consensual view on the Lok Pal Bill is well taken and is a plea to which Mr Hazare and his team should respond positively. Dr Singh is right in claiming that there are no magic solutions to eradicate the cancer of corruption and that institutional reform, including judicial reform, is key to the solution. His important announcement on a proposal to introduce greater transparency in public procurement and his emphasis on proper functioning of regulatory institutions point to the way ahead in the battle against corruption. In the end, it is not some all-powerful ombudsman who will eliminate corruption in public life; it will require ever-vigilant people and transparent economic and administrative systems where discretion is minimised and market principles of competition and competence are brought into play.
That India’s challenges are at home was re-emphasised by the fact that Dr Singh devoted most of his speech to domestic issues and only a passing reference was made to the outside world. The prime minister could easily have claimed some credit for India’s near-unanimous election to the United Nations Security Council under his watch and for an across-the-board improvement in India’s bilateral relations with all major powers, including China, and all neighbours, including Pakistan. All these are no mean achievements. If Dr Singh faces a credibility gap at the moment, it is more on account of political inertia on the part of the ruling coalition in defending his record in office. Perhaps more frequent communication with the public, and not just from the heights of the Red Fort but from more intimate forums, would help. On balance, Dr Singh has an impressive record, as briefly illustrated by his speech, and his leadership has been – and will continue to be – good for India.