Twenty years ago, Manmohan Singh was a man with a mission. After his first Budget as finance minister, he barged into a post-Budget press conference called by his officials, to personally explain what he was doing. He gave lengthy interviews; he spoke from virtually every available platform, to get across the need for change. Later, when Narasimha Rao announced a series of Independence Day handouts, Dr Singh gave an interview to say that the country could not spend its way to prosperity (Sonia Gandhi, please note). And towards the end of the Rao government’s tenure, when the atmosphere became thick with deal-making, he spoke out courageously against crony capitalism.
The contrast with today could not be more striking, as the country seems to have a prime minister-in-hiding. You see him seated at meetings, looking a trifle lost, or mouthing homilies at government functions (the MAFA syndrome — mistaking articulation for action). Other than that, he is both invisible and silent. This is no way to lead.
If his government is paralysed by inaction, and tarred comprehensively with the corruption brush, it is because Dr Singh has not been true to his instincts, and too timid as the head of the government. Dayanidhi Maran as a stripling minister wrote to him in 2006, complaining that spectrum pricing should be left to him, not handed over to a group of ministers. Dr Singh meekly acquiesced. Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote to him two years before the Commonwealth Games, ie before the bloated and wasteful spending began, to complain about Mr Kalmadi’s budget-inflating habits. Yet Mr Kalmadi was allowed to go his merry way till the damage was done.
When A Raja cocked a snook at him, what was the response? Dr Singh’s private secretary made the telltale request that the prime minister’s office be kept at arm’s length. In other words, he knew that skullduggery was going on, but wanted to turn a blind eye. On the spectrum scandal, he himself has explained that once two of his ministerial colleagues were in agreement, he did not think he could intervene! And now it transpires that a former secretary in the finance ministry (E A S Sarma) wrote repeatedly to the prime minister, over two years, warning him of undue favours being done to private gas concessionaires like Reliance and Cairn, at the cost of the exchequer. He never got even a routine acknowledgement. Was Dr Singh too scared to ask Murli Deora?
So the prime minister cannot say that he did not know. In every case, he was informed, and he chose to do nothing. This is not because he was corrupt; even his worst critics will not say that. Perhaps he felt there was no choice in a coalition other than to turn a blind eye to some goings-on (he once said something like “I am not in the business of losing my government’s majority”). But if an honest and public-spirited man allows scamsters around him to flourish, the stage comes when personal honesty is no longer a valid defence. And belated action under public and court pressure provides no absolution.
What about the government’s policy paralysis? Speaking at a Business Standard awards function three months ago, Dr Singh said: “I sense a mood for renewal, as I did 20 years ago. We did not disappoint India in the summer of 1991. We will grasp the nettle once again, in the summer of 2011.” Well, the summer is ending, the rainy season has come, and this now looks like yet another case of MAFA. If this does not change very quickly, the question will be asked: is the useful life of this government over?