March 1, 2011

Manmohan Singh - The Feeble Patriarch

With his professorial patience and softness towards his colleagues, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may actually be transmitting a perception of weakness
In a disarming and seemingly innocuous tone, the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy tried to achieve the impossible in his chat with editors on February 16, in the middle of the worst crisis of confidence that his government has faced in its second term. He both accepted and denied responsibility for corruption in his government in that one sentence, adding fuel to an already raging fire.

In less than two years the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which beat expectations to return to power in 2009 with an enhanced mandate, appears to have totally lost its way. So disoriented has been the government that it could not even muster a proper defence as scam after scam rocked the country.

It was not even as if UPA II is all about swindling and little else. It is just that this government’s success stories in the making — such as the national unique identity project Aadhar, women’s reservation and performance monitoring system for the bureaucracy — have all gone unnoticed in the din created by the wave of scams. In the year-end performance rankings, more than two-thirds of the departments are said to be doing well. The economy is still growing fast, perhaps an island of excellence in an otherwise growth-starved world. But the double whammy of a runaway inflation and news of irregularities in a growing list of departments have cemented the perception of a dysfunctional government in the minds of the people.

Though Manmohan Singh remains in denial, his home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has been forthright. “There is indeed a governance deficit in some areas and perhaps there is also an ethical deficit [as well],’’ Chidambaram said recently. Even Congress President Sonia Gandhi admitted as much at the Burari Plenary of the party last December. “There is no doubt that corruption at all levels has become a disease spreading throughout our society,’’ Gandhi told party workers.

International opinion on India and Singh has also taken a sharp U-turn, threatening to erode much of the Prime Minister’s credibility, built so assiduously over the past four decades of public service as an economist, bureaucrat and a reluctant politician.

“India cannot be taken seriously on the world stage when its prime minister doesn’t have the power to speak on the country’s behalf,” the Wall Street Journal wrote after the PM’s February 16 press conference. That was a far cry from even last year when President Obama remarked at a G-20 meeting that when Manmohan Singh speaks, the world listens.

The roots of this governance deficit, however, run much deeper than any scam or irregularity that has come to light in the recent months. At the heart of an indecisive India lies a lack of single, effective leadership. UPA-II is clearly suffering from a ‘policy paralysis’ with big-ticket reforms getting stalled because of the alliance leader’s bipolar nature and its external political compulsions.

The Leadership Deficit
Since 1978, every Congress president has also been the prime minister whenever the party was in power. Until 2004, that is. The UPA in 2004 started on high moral ground as Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the unanimous choice of the elected UPA members, gave up a shot at the top job and instead ‘nominated’ Singh as Prime Minister. Since that day, Singh has been fighting the perception of being a puppet PM especially since he remains the only PM of India to yet win a popular mandate.

While Singh’s erudition, honesty and academic accomplishments appeal to the hearts and minds of the people of India, the lack of political stature and astuteness has severely undermined his ability to lead at a time when the country is undergoing an immense social, economic and political churning. The result: What many thought would be Singh’s swan song term has turned out to be an ignominious parade of scandals and governmental inefficiency. Progress on much-needed measures such as a uniform national sales tax regime and land reforms is stalled as the government has failed to build consensus among states and its coalition partners. The Congress Party’s political equity is fast running out.

Despite over two decades of coalition politics, there are no clear lessons on how to run a national government with the help of disparate regional parties without making some unwanted compromises. The Congress is insecure and is itself competing with many regional parties to regain its lost turf in the states even though many of them are its partners at the Centre.

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