India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an underachieving man in shadow who may or may not be up to his job and does not realize that his country needs to reboot. This is the summary of what Time magazine’s Asia edition says in its July 16 issue featuring Dr. Singh on its cover.
Magazine and newspaper editors can afford to be glib because all they have to do is to raise fundamental questions, lob them and then run. They return to their offices to fashion more fundamental questions that they can lob next day or week or month depending on the periodicity of their publications.
Time Asia’s cover story by Krista Mahr has as its main headline “A Man in Shadow’ with a blurb that says, “The Underachiever India needs a reboot. Is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh up to the job?” I would think it’s a bit late in the day to ask whether Dr. Singh “is up to the job” eighth year into that job. For whatever it is worth that job has run over 70 percent of its course.
By all sane logic this is Dr. Singh’s last term as prime minister because it is highly unlikely that in 2014 when India’s is scheduled to have its next general elections he will offer himself for the job. More than anyone else, including the brilliant editors of Time magazine, Dr. Singh is acutely aware that he is now fighting for his personal legacy in the remainder of his term. For someone, who 20 years ago began unprecedented dismantling of the notorious state controls over India’s economy, albeit as much out of economic compulsion as political necessity, Dr. Singh does not need reminders from the media that the country is in the midst of a somewhat worrisome slowdown. Who knows it better than him what ails the Indian economy and what shot it needs in its arm?
India’s economic growth has dropped to a nine-year low of 5.3 percent as per the quarter ended March 31, 2012. The gross domestic product (GDP) growth also fell to 6.5 percent in 2011-12 as compared to 8.4 percent in the previous year. Beyond pure numbers there is growing perception, which may not be rooted in reality, that the Singh government has lost its vigor to pursue economic reform in order to push the growth up to its healthier eight plus percent level. Endemic corruption as well bloody-minded political machinations that any coalition government has to battle are being blamed for the decline.
More often than not media editors forget that prime ministers and presidents have to run a country and not a company. The variables of running any country, let alone one of India’s unnerving complexities and inequities, are enormous and demand so much more than running a company. Let a newspaper or magazine editor wrestle through a typical day’s challenges that Dr. Singh has had to face since 2004 as prime minister and then decide whether it is easier to lob fundamental questions or find answers to them in the mammoth mess of political contradictions and economic unpredictability. The editor’s by far is the easier job, I would presume.
Having reported on the political skullduggeries that played on behind-the-scenes during the first phase of India’s economic reform from 1990 to 1997, I can assure you that what the world gets to see as the end result is not even ten percent what it took to get there. The media does tend to underappreciate the harrowing amount of jostling and jockeying that attends any major policy reform in a country like India.
It is true that no one forced Dr. Singh to accept the kind of jobs that he did throughout his career and therefore he must subject himself to all manners of scrutiny by all manners of people. No one held a gun to his head and said become India’s prime minister or else. There was also nothing stopping him other than burning ambition, both personal and on behalf of the country, from accepting a second term. All those are fair points and have to be made while judging his performance. He also gives the sense of being a leader unable to extricate himself from morass of status quo.
That said, it is equally true that he has a great deal to lose by not acting decisively even when he can because more than anyone else on India’s national stage it is Dr. Singh who has a direct personal stake in the success of the economic reform process which he started two decades ago. In the 1990s he was India’s finance minister and had in P V Narasimha Rao a prime minister who cushioned all the political blows. Now Dr. Singh is both, the prime minister and the finance minister, after the departure of Pranab Mukherjee who is contesting the presidential election. I don’t think a nearly 80-year-old Ph.D. in economics from Oxford who has spent over five decades in various policy roles needs a reminder about what is not working.
Questions such as whether he is up to the job convey a false sense of media bravado when its posers also know that the reality is way more complicated than one man being up to his job. It is a daily slugfest where its players carry a flower in one hand a dagger in the other. No one knows which one gets whipped out when and by whom.