Archive for December, 2011

Assessing Manmohan Singh: He was never a true reformist by instinct

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Assessing Manmohan Singh: He was never a true reformist by instinct

Bibek Debroy

Rare is the person who reads Robert Browning now. He wrote a poem titled “The Patriot” and it begins, “It was roses, roses, all the way, /With myrtle mixed in my path like mad.” Somewhere down the line, the poem says, “And you see my harvest, what I reap, /This very day, now a year is run.”

It has been more than a year now, seven years if one counts from 2004. As prime minister, Manmohan Singh (let’s call him MMS) is most likely on his way out, once the Congress figures out the exit policy.

Since clamours for removal have emanated from within the Congress too, we aren’t talking about 2014. More like 2012. As PM, the MMS legacy has been the nuclear deal, aborted peace initiatives with Pakistan and part-aborted agreements with Bangladesh. But MMS is an economist. As FM, he is the one who liberalised the economy in 1991 and reminded us about an idea (reforms) whose time has come.

Rao, Not Singh To put it mildly, the economy is in a shambles now. Reforms most likely are on permanent pause. The sound and fury over FDI in retail amounted to nothing. During UPA-I, we had RTI and NREG. The rest was a legacy. During UPA-II, we have Right to Education and may have Right to Food. As a reformer, lauded by the external world and urban India, I doubt MMS will be proud of this legacy.

But should we be surprised? We have conjured up an image of MMS as the original reforming FM. There are several problems with this identification. First, MMS wasn’t PV Narasimha Rao’s original choice as FM. IG Patel was, though that is neither here nor there. Second, the credit for those reforms should largely go to Rao, though the Congress conveniently chose to ignore this later. Indeed, MMS also distanced himself from Rao, though that too is perhaps neither here nor there, except that it reveals some of MMS’ personal attributes. The point is, any FM in 1991 would have had to introduce those reforms. The agenda was known. The blueprint was known.

All of these had been firmed up by the end of 1990. All that remained was for FM to read out the speech. MMS wasn’t the engineer or the architect. At best, he was the contractor.

Third, MMS may have been an economist once. But for years and years, he was a laterally inducted bureaucrat. A requisite characteristic of a successful bureaucrat is lack of conviction, economic, political or ideological.

You need to be malleable. And MMS was successful at that. It isn’t generally known that the “garibi hatao” slogan was thought of by MMS. Therefore, we have ourselves conjured up this ‘father of reforms’ image and MMS chose to go along.

Honest, But… Part of the image also concerns honesty. Honesty is a relative expression. I have been severely reprimanded by an MP for calling MPs and politicians dishonest. I have been advised to call them differently honest and there is a grain of truth in that.
There is absolutely no question that MMS is personally honest in pecuniary matters. I have plenty of anecdotes on this and so do all those who have interacted with him. But have you heard of House No. 3989, Nandan Nagar, Ward No. 51, Sarumataria? You probably haven’t. This is in Dispur and MMS is ostensibly a tenant there.

That’s because he is a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam. As I said, honesty is a relative term and I know of people who would baulk at this deception.

There is an anecdote in Yashwant Sinha’s book about how MMS had brought alone a file to Chandra Shekhar, who was then the PM, but had already resigned. The file concerned MMS’ appointment as UGC boss.

As Chandra Shekhar had already resigned as PM, he pointed out that he couldn’t morally sign the file. MMS retorted that he had backdated the file. Since this anecdote has gone uncontested, it is presumably true.

Therefore, if non-pecuniary transactions are involved, I have never been convinced MMS places a premium on “honesty”. It is for an individual to decide whether he feels comfortable looking at himself in the mirror.

I think this “personal honesty” point is driven too hard and is again part of the myth, not the reality. As is the statement, “MMS is not a politician”, with the word “politician” being used in a pejorative sense. In this context, what does the word politician mean? I guess it means someone who will do anything to further one’s own goals, even if it means discarding one’s friends and dining with the enemy. In politics, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Low on Charisma

If that is the definition, and not election to Lok Sabha or state assemblies, I find no evidence to suggest MMS is not a politician. On the contrary, I have met people who have worked with MMS in various capacities and who recount his ability to be extremely flexible for achieving goals. This is no big deal, in fact, it isn’t any deal at all.

The problem is with the MMS’s image. It’s far too removed from reality.

This leaves MMS’s attribute of humility, and I have plenty of anecdotes on that too. This attribute is without blemishes. But MMS never had fire in him. However, as FM, and as leader of the opposition later, he was fun to work with. He was knowledgeable and made you comfortable. As PM, and increasingly so, he looks tired and jaded.

I have refrained from personal anecdotes. But there is one I cannot resist. I forget the year. It was probably around 2000 and he was leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha then. The context doesn’t matter for this story. I remarked, “Why don’t you forget all this? You will never become PM. Write a book.”

I wish he had never become PM, or had gracefully exited in 2009.