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06 May, 2014

Manmohan Singh's decade

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has said history will judge him more kindly than contemporary media, steps down later this month after having headed two successive Congress-led United Progressive Alliance governments.

He certainly has a place in history as the third longest serving of the 14 prime ministers who held office during the past 67 years. But his name is unlikely to be mentioned in the same breath as those of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, both of whom served longer than him.

Manmohan Singh was repeatedly put down by Lal Kishen Advani, the tallest leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in the outgoing parliament, as the weakest prime minister the country had seen. The BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, picked up the line early in the election campaign but dropped it soon, keeping all vitriol at his command for use against the “mother-son regime,” a term he employed to drive home the point that under the UPA all authority was vested in Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.

Sanjay Baru, who had served as Manmohan Singh’s media adviser during UPA I, dubbed him Accidental Prime Minister in a book which was released as the election campaign got under way. It was an unkind cut inasmuch as Baru was fully aware of the fortuitous circumstances in which Manmohan Singh got the post when he went to work for him.

It is absurd to suggest, as some critics have done, that Manmohan Singh abdicated power to Sonia Gandhi. The fact is that power was always with her. She was the one who commanded the Congress party’s loyalty and she was its choice for the post of prime minister.

She decided not to accept the post because the issue of her foreign origin, which the BJP had been hammering on, had started echoing within the Congress too. A few leaders like Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar and former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma had quit the party on the issue.

Manmohan Singh began life as an academic and spent two decades as bureaucrat, planner and monetary regulator before taking up his first political job as Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government. In that capacity, he pushed ahead with economic reform, which was initiated by a previous government but was moving too slowly to make a visible impact.

With a crafty politician like Narasimha Rao backing him to the hilt, Manmohan Singh had no reason to worry over his own lack of political experience, and missed the opportunity to develop skills in that department. But the prime minister’s job is a political one. He needs political skills as he has to mediate between contending political, economic, social and cultural forces.

Manmohan Singh’s hope of a kind judgment by history rests on the good performance of the national economy under his watch. Last week, the World Bank’s development data group, which compares national economies on the basis of purchase power parity, reported that India, which was the world’s tenth largest economy in 2005, had risen to the third position by 2011.

Political failure was built into the circumstances in which Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi had picked him for the post, avoiding leaders with political experience who were available in the party. What appealed to her was probably not his economic expertise, which could be used to carry forward the reform process, but his political inexperience, which lessened the chances of his emerging as an alternative power centre in the party.

Staying put as prime minister for 10 years at a stretch can ordinarily be taken as implied proof of political skill. But, in Manmohan Singh’s case, it is only proof of his strong survival instinct. No one has accused him of personal corruption but he stands exposed as one who did nothing as ministerial colleagues indulged in questionable acts.

The civilian nuclear agreement with the United States was the only issue on which he displayed political grit. He could have his way on it as Sonia Gandhi was willing to go along.

As Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi was the repository of political authority during Manmohan Singh’s prime ministerial years. She, therefore, shares with him responsibility for the political mismanagement which provided Narendra Modi with the opportunity to argue that the country needs a Rambo-like prime minister.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 6, 2014.

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