Manmohan Singh and the politics of decency

A supporter of India's opposition National Democratic Alliance holds a poster of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh holds a poster during a rally in Patna on May 31, 2012, Mr Singh has been criticised for inaction

Not so long ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was lauded for his calm demeanour and for practising a politics of decency and reconciliation.

His supporters would say that these qualities stood India in good stead: they cite the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks when Mr Singh refused to indulge in war mongering against Pakistan and ratchet up the tension.

Even his critics would concede that during his government's fruitful first term in office, the diarchy - the technocrat, politics-averse Mr Singh running the government and the dynast Sonia Gandhi running the party - looked like a smart arrangement.

Politics is a fickle business, and three years into the Congress-led government's second dismal term in office, Mr Singh's strengths - and the Delhi diarchy - appear to have become liabilities.

They are being blamed for what critics call a paralysis gripping Mr Singh's government, bogged down by charges of graft and inaction and saddled with an economy which seems to have stalled. "Mr Singh has plainly run out of steam," the Economist magazine says.

The latest salvo has come from ratings agency Standard & Poor's, which cut its outlook on India in April.

In an unexceptional report warning that India could be the first Bric nation to lose its investment grade status, the agency's economists say Mr Singh "often appears to have limited ability to influence his cabinet colleagues and proceed with the liberalisation policy he favours". It doesn't forget to remind that Mr Singh is an "unelected" prime minister who "lacks a political base of his own," and that political power is held by Mrs Gandhi who holds no cabinet position.

Last week, Mr Singh's former media advisor and journalist Harish Khare launched an unusual broadside against his former boss, hinting that the prime minister's innate decency may be a handicap. "Manmohan Singh is not corrupt, but he is definitely guilty," Mr Khare wrote in The Hindu newspaper. "He can be easily charged - along with his political partner Mrs Sonia Gandhi - of pursing a politics of decency and of elevating reconciliation to a matter of state policy."

'Cost of confrontation'

Mr Khare blames Mr Singh for not having the pluck to take on cunning civil society activists and rogue corporate interests who are trying to discredit his government; he also criticises him for not using his considerable intellectual heft to challenge government auditors who the government believes have exaggerated the revenue losses due to sale of telecom licences. "Manmohan Singh is guilty of pursuing the noble quest for reconciliation at the expense of another maxim of statecraft: those who spurn the public authority's hand of reconciliation must be made to learn the cost of confrontation," concludes Mr Khare.

Over the weekend, senior journalist Barkha Dutt bemoaned Mr Singh's "loss of personality", alluding to how the prime minister took on his government's key Communist allies during his first term while pushing ahead with the civilian nuclear deal with the US. "The PM's strongest trait - an indisputable personal decency - has now come to be conflated with his biggest weakness - a timidity of style that prevents robust decision-making. While even today his sharpest critics do not question the PM's personal integrity, decency is no longer acceptable as a substitute for inaction," she wrote.

The taciturn and inscrutable Mr Singh - an "antidote to the comedic stereotype of the brash and irate Sikh", as historian Patrick French once described him - hardly gives interviews. So we really don't know how he feels about being called a timid and overly decent man who avoids confrontation at the cost of credibility. We also don't know whether India's Deng Xiaoping has lost his appetite for economic reforms in the ongoing political battle between reformists and populists, which the latter are clearly winning.

But a rare interview by Mr Singh from 1996 may offer some clues to the problems facing the prime minister today. Reflecting on his years as the finance minister in PV Narasimha Rao's minority government, Mr Singh told journalist Vir Sanghvi that the liberalisation process he initiated in 1991 ground to a halt after "politics took over on December 6, 1992", the day Hindu fanatics demolished the Babri mosque. "After that it was just politics that was on everybody's mind. And an important matter like cutting the fiscal deficit did not receive much importance as it should have been."

India's politics is possibly looking as divisive and broken today. The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency, Theodore Roosevelt once said. If the critics are to be believed, it isn't working in India these days. India needs temperate leaders, and most people believe Mr Singh is one. But temperate leaders needn't be weak.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    They are UN figures - not BBC's!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    People like bob(22) are in the state of denial, and have been for some time. And I'm sure the guy's name is not "bob".

    Anyway, Soutik brings out an important point. With no major reforms in the vicinity, and FDI drying up, maintaining a stable economic growth rate will be very difficult, if not impossible. Converting India into a consumer driven economy will take years coz Indians like to save.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    All the hype & myth about our top leadership is carefully created. Almost none of the top leaders (Sonia, Rahul, Manmohan etc) face public scrutiny in form of open interview, participating in any unbiased debate in reputed media (e.g BBC) or even in parliament.
    Silence & arrogant avoidance (of accountability) is widely used to hide incompetence & ignorance in feudal & hierarchical Indian society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @ Bob (22).
    Arjun Sengupta commission (2007) identified 77% of Indians as "poor & vulnerable". ADB ~50%, UNDP- >55% India now ranks pathetic in almost every issue of governance- 78th out of 123 in terms of literacy, and at 134 out or 187 countries in terms of human development index (HDI).

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Such people are habituated to carry out orders, not much familiar or groomed to give orders, take decisions. The problem with Indian economy is more structural & long over due. The architects of open market economy of 1991, including Dr Singh, still continue to conveniently deny that such economy needs a basic level of corporate governance & effective judiciary that India still does not have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @amcbeast do u have any evidence that 50 % of indian live in poor condition..its wrong..tats created by other countries to undermine india

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Any prime minister of a democratic country without own his/her political base is surely a liability for the country. The lack of political strength/base definitely affect its ability to enforce own decision. Academic knowledge has no correlation whatsoever with leadership quality. Many of the best presidents of US did not even have formal education. Dr Singh is a career bureaucrat & academician.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    One should remember that every government has ups and downs. As one should points out down they should not forget to show ups. Running a country like India, where most citizens forgot self respect, fire to act and work for the Best of the country, is not a Jok. After all India in NOT Japan or Germany or other country where everyone has only one target and that is Progress!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Coalition politics has been the undoing of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and the populism being preached by leftist sympathizers in the Government has not helped. Delicencing has allowed crony capitalists to take advantage of prospecting natural resources of the country. The Government would not survive its mandate for full term and Manmohan Singh may find going tough day by day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Prime Minister Manmohan singh was never a suitable choice for the ageing poverty driven and money centric country, where everybodys objective is to aquire and be secured not only for himself and family but for another 100 generation, take examples of any rich person in the country, he has invested his time and energy only to aquire as much as possible in the shortest possible period, thus we

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    To Manage and administer a country like India which has multi culture and language definately he or she should have more qualities than just being decent, cultured and technocrat, Manmohan is from old era and follows decorum which is not available in tdays politics of the country, we need somebody like Diggy who knows to use carrot and stick

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Manmohan singh being a technocrat who proved his worth the finance minister under the able and astute political prime minister PV Narishma rao who knows how to juggle and since PV was in complete control with a weak congress president, he had his own way and style of functioning but congress as a political party was finished by PV Narishma, due to his in action against demolition of Babri

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    When Dr Singh took over as a Prime Minister,he started with a decent image.Later it was realised that he was not in a position to run a big country like India as he was inefficient in administration.His cabinet colleagues,who were equally clueless,started functioning on their own and failed.Dr Singh started enjoying his power.Big economic crimes broke out which he ignored and could not control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Corruption is the key to all this:

    - Political corruption which uses patronage and graft to tie everything to the dynasties that run politics.
    - Financial corruption, which means business bribe politicians for the govt contracts needed to make money through theft from the state.

    Both afflict India like fleas on a dog & leads to paralysis in Govt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I guess that timidity is the price that anyone has to pay for heading a coalition government. Dr. Singh has to please so many allies, all of whom threaten to scupper the coalition ship if their demands are not met.
    Despite the fact that Dr. Singh personally is not corrupt, the polices are ruining the economy and the hyperinflation may result in the right wingers (BJP) winning the next election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Liability!!....his decency is an asset to his party of crooks, its the mask behind which the loot and plunder of this nation is taking place in full swing.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    It is sickening to see how journalist after journalist adds a caveat after each critique of Singh; that Singh is a decent man.

    The very fact that continues to be the PM of the country without being a leader makes him corrupt. He is occupying a position that he doesn't deserve, didn't earn. He was not elected but selected.

    Would BBC accept an unqualified person to work in an executive position?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @bob - 50% of the world's hungry people live in India. Health and literacy statistics are appalling. The BBC is not trying to undermine India it is pointing out problems that you should take notice of.


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