Delivering the first SB Rangnekar Memorial lecture at the Panjab University, his alma mater, in Chandigarh, the former PM said that India “must preserve strategic autonomy in decision making processes and resist the temptation of rich rewards gained by becoming a tool in the great games of big powers in the pursuit of their imperial ambitions.”
Singh said economic growth remained a high priority for India, but bemoaned the “weakening” of the accompanying commitment to ensure that disparities and inequality do not grow. He also criticised the abolition of the Planning Commission by the Narendra Modi government.
The former PM said a "dangerous and false binary" of choosing between freedom and development was surfacing in the country's political discourse and it must be rejected. He said India’s electoral system was being undermined by the use of money and muscle power and called for electoral reforms.
On the issue of increasing inequality, the former PM said: “Development planning, and the Planning commission, were designed to ensure that while the economy grew, inequality did not grow. With the abolition of the Planning Commission, fresh efforts have to be made to keep inequalities under control.”
Singh said the economic liberaliSation that he was associated with “in 1991-1996 and 2004-2014” was, above all, a process of opening up new opportunities for people born without social and economic privilege. “This was for me the guiding vision behind our economic reforms,” he said.
He said there was now “a growing concern that the concomitant commitment to ensuring that disparities and inequality do not grow is weakening.” He said this “can be a serious potential threat to our democracy.”
Singh said: “economists and development experts worldwide, including in India, are today emphasiSing the grave danger to sustained growth from growing inequality.”
The former prime minister termed it “vitally important” for India “to maintain strong focus on containing the growth of economic inequality, and work actively to reduce it.”
“What is required is stronger social and political reawakening to the principle of equality – social, economic and political – for the sake of equality and as a mark of our commitment to democracy.”
“In the short term, pro-equality policies may make growth more expensive, but the growing inequality is, in the long term, a far greater danger to economic well-being and sustained growth,” he said.
Singh said the increase in atrocities against minorities and dalits, if unchecked, can harm India’s democracy. Singh said people’s faith in democracy is being eroded as much by a sustained campaign to attack democratic institutions and elected representatives as by the increasing political corruption and the capture of political parties and elected office by vested interests.
“We need to ask ourselves whether we are losing patience with democracy and turning to more authoritarian alternatives that may well yield superior short-term results but in the long term will end up destroying our country and all the achievements of the last seventy years”,” he said.
The former PM said governance is “complex”, “messy” and “slow”. “Its benefits are long term. It requires great patience”. He said democracy is a system in which people without privilege have a decisive voice in governance. “If this is lost, democracy becomes meaningless,” he said, and called for everyone to get involved in strengthening democracy.