Viewpoint: The upbeat legacy of Manmohan Singh
- 26 September 2012
- From the section India
Manmohan Singh's accomplishments are extraordinary as he reaches his 80th birthday, writes fellow Congress party member and MP Shashi Tharoor.
Twenty years ago, India's mild-mannered finance minister delivered a startlingly bold budget to the nation with the memorable words: "No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come."
The idea he was advancing was that of the liberalisation of the Indian economy, and the reforms he ushered in proved almost revolutionary, lifting many of the controls of the "licence-permit-quota Raj" and transforming India's derisory "Hindu rate of growth" from below 3% to a galloping, even tigerish, 8% plus in the decade and a half that followed.
Twenty years later, that finance minister, now prime minister and at the pinnacle of his career, stands pilloried by every pundit with a soapbox, for indecision, pusillanimity and presiding over "policy paralysis" while corrupt colleagues allegedly make off with the nation's silver.
His mildness dismissed as timidity, his calm and unflappable manner excoriated as complacency and ineffectiveness, he is blamed for the bloom coming off the Indian rose. He has even been damned as an "underachiever" by a prominent international news magazine.
So as Manmohan Singh turns 80, has he lost the plot? Or are his critics being grossly unfair?
This is the same man who did more than anyone to earn his country a worldwide reputation as the world's next big economic success story. Manmohan Singh deserves better.
Yes, there has been bad news: some investor flight (mainly because of a retrospective tax law passed this year designed to net taxes from foreign transactions involving Indian companies), mounting inflation as food and fuel prices rise, and political troubles for his ruling coalition which had, for example, delayed the introduction of a new policy to permit foreign direct investment in India's retail trade - a policy that was announced and then suspended for a year because of domestic political opposition.
But there is no reason to believe that any of this is more than temporary, a minor blip in a graph of long-term success. The pessimism infecting most of the criticism is as exaggerated as the earlier boosterism about India was overblown.
Manmohan Singh's accomplishments are extraordinary.
The India he took by the scruff of the neck in 1991 was an inefficient and under-performing centrally-planned economy which for 45 years had placed bureaucrats rather than businessmen on its "commanding heights", stifled enterprise under a straitjacket of regulations and licences, thrown up protectionist barriers and denied itself trade and foreign investment in the name of self-reliance, subsidised an unproductive public sector and struggled to redistribute its poverty.
Today's India boasts a thriving, entrepreneurial and globalised economy, with a dynamic and creative business culture, dealing with the world on its own terms and pulling over 10 million people a year above the poverty line.
The contrast is extraordinary - and no one deserves a greater share of the credit for this transformation than Manmohan Singh.
Even as the planet has faced an unprecedented global economic crisis and recession, India weathered the worldwide trend and remained the second fastest growing major economy in the world after China - at a time when most countries suffered negative growth rates in at least one quarter in the last four years.
Manmohan Singh's stewardship has a lot to do with this.
His is the voice heard with greatest respect when the G-20 gathers to discuss the world's macro-economic situation. President Obama has mentioned him first amongst the top three world leaders he admires.
The Indian economy grew nearly 7% in 2011-12; the services sector grew at 9%, and accounts for 58% of India's GDP growth - a stabilising factor when a world in recession can't afford to buy more manufactured goods.
According to last year's census, the country's 247 million households, two-thirds of them rural, have seen literacy rates rise to 74% (from 65% in 2001); 51,000 schools were opened and 680,000 teachers appointed in just the last two years.
An impressive 63% of Indians now have phones, up from just 9% a decade ago; 100 million new phone connections were established last year, including 40 million in rural areas, and India now has 943.5 million telephone connections.
Thanks to the ethos brought in by Manmohan Singh, nearly 60% of Indians have a bank account (indeed, more than 50 million new bank accounts have been opened in the last three years, mainly in rural India).
Some 20,000 MW in additional power generation capacity was added last year, with 3.5 million new electricity connections in rural India; also last year, 8,000 new villages got power for the first time, and 93% of Indians in towns and cities have at least some access to electricity.
These trends all augur well for India's macroeconomic future. And they aren't slowing: Manmohan Singh's India is looking for $1 trillion in infrastructure development over the next five years, most of it under public-private partnerships. This offers hugely exciting opportunities to investors.
The controversial budget provisions are being reviewed; the decision to permit FDI in multi-brand retail and civil aviation has been pursued even at the cost of losing a recalcitrant ally; subsidies on diesel and cooking gas have been reduced in the face of vociferous opposition.
More reforms are in the offing, sending an unmistakable signal that India is not ready to be written off.
Yes, corruption exists, but it's an Indian problem, not a Manmohan problem.
Corruption has been endemic despite, before and beyond his prime ministership.
Though many of the lurid newspaper headlines about corruption may yet prove to have been exaggerated, the revelations that have fuelled them are at least proof of Indian democracy at work - institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the judiciary, the media and civil society functioning with fierce independence and passion.
And the irresponsibly destructive behaviour of the opposition has done more to foment the worst perceptions about India's performance as a nation unready for the opportunities of the 21st Century than any of the government's alleged failures.
The real picture of Manmohan's and India's dogged progress in the face of these challenges is far removed from the biased portrayal of a government beset by inaction and policy paralysis.
As the prime minister himself modestly put it: "I will be the first to say we need to do better. But let no one doubt that we have achieved much."
You have indeed, sir, and you have earned the right to be hailed for what you have done, not assailed for what you are yet to do.
Happy birthday, Mr Prime Minister. India will benefit as we wish you many glorious returns of the day.
Shashi Tharoor is a member of parliament for the governing Congress party and the award-winning author of India: from Midnight to the Millennium and most recently Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century. The views expressed in this article are his own.