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Manmohan Singh: Leader or led?

Was Manmohan Singh a better No. 2 than a No.1? Did he place too high a premium on survival, and thereby achieve too little? T N Ninan looks for the answers in Singh's record

T N Ninan  |  New Delhi 

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh had a PhD student, his first, when he moved in 1971 from being professor of international trade at the Delhi School of Economics to economic advisor in the commerce ministry. His student was now faced with the prospect of choosing a new supervisor for her thesis, but Singh would have none of it - except that he would not be able to spare time for her during his working day. So when he got home from a long day's work, usually at around 9 pm, and found his student waiting for him, he would let his family and dinner wait until he had sat down for a session with her. Duty came before self and family.

In 1979, he was secretary in the finance ministry's department of economic affairs when Charan Singh presented his notorious Budget. Briefing the press the morning after, Singh rebutted criticism that the Budget would add majorly to already soaring inflation, presenting his own estimates of its inflationary impact. He was to be proved embarrassingly wrong, though a failed monsoon and the second oil shock played their role.

Three years later, continuing a meteoric rise that remains unmatched, Singh at 50 had become governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Pranab Mukherjee was the finance minister, and wanted Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) to get a branch in Bombay, as it then was. BCCI was run by an influential Pakistani, had West Asian connections and a dodgy reputation. Singh as governor resisted; when Mukherjee insisted, Singh offered his resignation. He was then told that the government would take away RBI's bank licensing powers, so Singh decided it was better to make an exception rather than be rigid and damage RBI as an institution. BCCI got its licence but went bankrupt some years later.

These three episodes capture the strengths and weaknesses that Singh would display decades later, as prime minister. He worked tirelessly and selflessly, often without concern for his health. Second, despite his stellar record as an economist, he was not always good at reading the economic tea leaves - misreading, for instance, the severity and length of the current downturn. And at lunch with a small group in the mid-1990s, he questioned China's soaring growth numbers.

Finally, if asked to choose between doing the right thing in a specific instance and pursuing the larger good (as in insisting on the auctioning of captive coal mines versus humouring an ally and keeping his coalition government going), he would and did choose the latter. That also happened to be the expedient choice; yes survival was important too - especially since he believed that he could make a better job of being prime minister than the next man. What he may not have reckoned was that too many expedient decisions would eventually take virtue away from survival.

Though he lost his mother when very young, and then became a Partition refugee, Singh was born under a lucky star. He became finance minister in 1991 because I G Patel turned down the job. That made him, quite fortuitously, the right person in the right place at the right time. The need for a re-orientation of economic (particularly industrial) policy had already been outlined in the Congress election manifesto of 1991, written and released when Singh was not on the scene. Some correctives (like fiscal correction and disinvestment) had been announced by Singh's predecessor as finance minister, Yashwant Sinha. Within the government, Montek Singh Ahluwalia had written a controversial paper advocating a broad re-orientation of industrial policy. Change was in the air. The foreign exchange crisis converted reform ideas into inevitabilities.

But it was Singh who got the spotlight and rolled out the package with calibration that made his reputation as a masterful reformer. He was certainly ready for the role; in an interview to this writer in 1982, after he had been named RBI governor, he had argued that the thicket of physical controls had to go, to be replaced where necessary by financial controls. Still, ministerial colleagues like P Chidambaram played their role in 1991, and Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had to give political cover. When the cover was not effective, as with the 1991 Budget proposal to raise fertiliser prices, his moves had to be rolled back. When the cover was all but withdrawn in 1993, in the wake of electoral reverses for the Congress in key state elections, the push for reforms ran out of steam.

That pattern has continued. In the decade of United Progressive Alliance rule, the big ideas have come from Sonia Gandhi and her cabal - the right to information, the right to food, the right to employment, and so on. Even the proposal to push the nuclear deal as a way of achieving a bilateral diplomatic breakthrough came from George W Bush. Singh gets the credit for spotting its significance; he grabbed the ball and ran with it. Meanwhile, of the economic reform that so many expected of him, there was precious little - it had no political cover.

So is Singh a better No. 2 than a No. 1? Or a bureaucrat in politician's clothing? It is hard to say. If he was willing to risk his government on the nuclear deal, it was partly because of a strategic foreign policy insight that belongs to a No. 1: if you were seen as America's friend, the attitudes of many other important countries changed too. On the other hand, one of the key aspects of being No. 1 is that you have to bang heads together, not take the path of least resistance. But consider the face-off between Chidambaram as home minister and Nandan Nilekani, responsible as he saw it for issuing a unique identity number to every resident of the country.

Chidambaram argued that the enumeration had to be done by the Census Commissioner for creating a National Population Register, and you could not have simultaneous registration by Nilekani's Unique Identity Authority. Nilekani argued that his registration was already happening in spades, whereas the Census Commissioner was yet to get moving. He went to Singh, seeking a way out. Singh simply asked him to sort it out bilaterally with Chidambaram - which was no help. By the time a clumsy compromise was worked out, Aadhaar registration had virtually ground to a halt, and it took months to regain momentum.

PC Parakh, the former coal secretary, has recounted in his book, Crusader or Conspirator?, that Singh protected him when his minister levied unfounded charges and wanted him moved out of coal. Singh even agreed with Parakh's proposal that coal mines for captive use should be auctioned, not given free. But he did not assert that position when Sibu Soren as minister resisted and eventually scuttled the idea, thus setting the stage for a scandalous mine-grab.

Was Singh better at playing defence (protecting the civil servant under attack from a minister) than at taking the offensive on policy reform? Perhaps. The manner in which he resisted pressure from Sonia Gandhi to adopt a food security law that would have been unworkable in scope and disastrous for agriculture (in effect, reducing the grain needed for the programme by a half) is little known and appreciated. As for pushing his own agenda, Singh has said often that politics is the art of the possible. The criticism would be that he did little to expand the range of possibilities. More often than not, he was willing to play along with whatever idea had political legs.

It is hard, for instance, to square his DPhil thesis at Oxford, which argued against India's export pessimism, with his serving in the commerce ministry as economic advisor, in an environment where the hive of rules and restrictions reflected nothing as much as export pessimism. More recently, when a small group that he met in 2005 or 2006 pointed out that the employment guarantee law had serious fiscal implications, he brushed it off saying it would be years before the programme was extended to all districts of the country. Yet, in August 2007, he announced from the Red Fort that the programme would be extended to the whole country. When the prized petroleum ministry was being taken away from a very upset Mani Shankar Aiyar, Singh kept telling Aiyar that he was trying to save the latter's job.

So is there a real Manmohan Singh hidden behind the malleability and role-playing? Yes, there is. He is committed to the old-fashioned notion of public service.

Critics will say that Singh is attached to public office, not just public service. Even if true, all he wants - along with the opportunity to serve - is a government house, a secretary, and a car with driver (he can't type, and his own driving comes with loud grinding of gears). He has read and thought deeply about solutions to problems, but he has the survivor's instinct and the philosophical detachment to not push hard at closed doors, preferring to wait for an opportunity to implement his solutions.

Even as the failures now grab more attention than the successes, the unfairness of heaping the faults of a whole system on one frail man escapes most people. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have written in Why Nations Fail, countries lose steam because their institutions don't measure up. A moment's reflection will make clear that this is why India has slipped up: regulatory weakness, legislative deadlock, rule-driven rather than result-oriented civil servants, courts that are innocent of economic understanding, and rogues behind every bush. But it is also true that Singh has had a raft of reports on administrative reforms - some radical, others fairly simple to do. If he read the reports, he did nothing.

In his defence, he was not dealt an easy hand. Without real political power or control over his own party, he had to work with obstreperous coalition partners devoid of shame; typically, he felt obliged to ignore the obvious conflict of interest in giving the communications portfolio to a minister whose brother ran a related business. Should he have drawn the line at this, and other instances? Certainly yes. But he was on tap, not on top, as was rubbed in all too often, and most rudely by Rahul Gandhi at the Press Club in New Delhi. More privately, at a dinner that he hosted in his official residence, guests crowded to get a place at Sonia Gandhi's table while Singh waited for someone to come to his own table. His philosophical detachment and escape into Urdu couplets must have helped him cope with the indignities.

Yet one suspects that his innate and overt humility hides a well-hidden ambition, and the even more carefully hidden belief that he sits on Mount Olympus, while the lesser mortals that he sees around him occupy the lower heights. For a man who has struck some of his officials as prone to depression, there must be a sense of destiny that enables him to laugh when recalling difficult situations and people, and appear surprisingly cheerful in the midst of bad news. He is naturally courteous, but crafty in using effusive praise to both charm and disarm his interlocutors. At a dinner that he threw to thank Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, for help at the time of the 1991 foreign exchange crisis, he was almost obsequious in his praise of the visitor, making some of the Indian guests wince. But Camdessus may well have been charmed.

Still, the praise is superfluous in most instances, because his basic decency is enough to win you over; indeed, even his admonitions are gently worded. In the months and years to come, these qualities will be missed as public dialogue gets more coarse and raw.

So what about corruption and crony capitalism - which along with the economic slowdown have destroyed his prime-ministership? Singh slipped up because he views issues from the perspective of policy instrumentality rather than from the viewpoint of curbing wrongdoing by others - about which he is surprisingly non-judgmental for someone so fastidious about personal integrity. As he sees it, businessmen's animal spirits should be nurtured; if they get up to tricks… then, as he told a Cabinet colleague, we can't wait to get ideal men from Mars. He has argued publicly that corruption grows along with economic development.

In short, better learn to live with corruption -precisely the view that gave a booster shot to the Aam Aadmi Party and made many people turn to non-corrupt Narendra Modi. And yet, he was sensitive to criticism on the issue. When a Business Standard columnist wrote in the mid-1990s that Singh was personally honest but tolerated corrupt people around him, he telephoned to ask how he could defend himself against such unfair criticism. It was years before he finally forgave the columnist, though they were old friends.

The economic slowdown, meanwhile, has undermined one of the principal qualifications which he brought to the job, and is testament to his fallibility when it comes to reading the economic tea leaves. More than once, even as he predicted a recovery, the economy lost further ground. Blame also his inability to impose his will on finance ministers who were not his first preference for the job. Finally, the many issues that press in on a prime minister may have taken his mind away from economic subjects. In recent group meetings and conversations, he has openly admitted to being somewhat disengaged when it came to economic issues.

His recent decision to push for trials of genetically modified foods, short-circuiting mandatory procedures, shows the real Manmohan Singh, underlining his impatience with activist positions. He repeatedly sent businessmen to Jairam Ramesh as environment minister, asking Ramesh to consider what they were saying, which contrasted (as Ramesh saw it) with Singh never sending him anyone who argued the environmental point of view on a project. Clearly, growth takes precedence over the environment. He sees the judiciary as over-stepping its turf, which he has argued happens when the political establishment is weak. He also thinks that the Right to Information law has gone too far in pushing government transparency, but Sonia Gandhi scuttled the move to limit the law's ambit. And of course he thinks that the Comptroller & Auditor General has overstepped the line, creating an inquisitorial environment in which no government can function.

These are the positions you would expect from a sarkari economist who is immune to post-modern realities and oblivious of growing disenchantment. At the end of the day, Manmohan Singh remains the person he was 40 years ago: the reticent academic who moved from teaching to policy making, and whom fortune pitch-forked into high office. Once there, his personality traits - evident decades back - combined with what Harold Macmillan called "events" to create an environment where most of his countrymen are apparently eager to see the back of his government.

  • 1932: Born in Gah (now in Pakistan)
  • 1957-1965: Taught economics at Panjab University, Chandigarh
  • 1966-1969: Worked for UNCTAD in New York
  • 1969-1971: Professor of international trade, Delhi School of Economics
  • 1971-1976: Economic advisor in the commerce ministry
  • 1976-79: Secretary in the department of economic affairs
  • 1980- 1982: Member-secretary, Planning Commission
  • 1982-1985: Governor, Reserve Bank of India
  • 1985-1987: Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission
  • 1987-1990: Secretary General and Commissioner, South Commission
  • December 1990-March 1991: Advisor to prime minister
  • March 1991-June 1991: Chairman, University Grants Commission
  • June 21, 1991-May 15, 1996: Finance minister
  • 1998-2004: Leader of Opposition, Rajya Sabha
  • 2004 till now: Prime minister

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First Published: Sat, May 03 2014. 00:30 IST