Last month was arguably one of the most difficult for Manmohan Singh (henceforth MMS). Two ministers had to resign, and one big question surfaced: how is the Prime Minister to be assessed now?
It’s always better to go back a bit while assessing public figures. For MMS, let’s go back to reforms, of which he’s thought to be the architect. But, truly speaking, he wasn’t. By September 1990, the reform blueprint was in place and would have been implemented, regardless of who was the finance minister. Reforms were pushed by PV Narasimha Rao. Unmarked to Market.
But did MMS have firm convictions about market-based systems? He never did, at least before he took the FM’s job in 1991. There is evidence in his PhD thesis (published as a book in 1964), the South Commission report he effectively authored just before becoming FM and his role during Indira Gandhi days, including coining the slogan Garibi Hatao.
Also, MMS reduced import duties in his reform Budgets, but re-read his responses to P Chidambaram reducing direct tax rates in 1997. Those responses aren’t that of a politician committed to reforms.
This ideological malleability has been an important part of MMS’ career. As has been his ability to be a political animal. Without this, he wouldn’t have negotiated the maze of Indian bureaucracy and occupied every major economic post many government people dream of. So, MMS was adept at politics even before he became a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam.
A big deal is made about the PM’s personal honesty. It is absolutely true that MMS is personally honest. In a sleazy political system, an honest MMS is perceived to be a PLU (person like us). But PLUs are outside the political system and, therefore, they tend to not recognise MMS’ other less attributes.
Just Too Good
Recognising this is essential to understanding MMS as PM. He was catapulted to the top job in 2004, and here’s the basic assessment of him as a leader of the government: in MMS, one gets the essential ingredients of a good bureaucrat, not a good leader or statesman. Had he beenin the corporate sector, MMS would have been a good No. 2, not CEO material.
This assessment can be easily established. If economics was his forte, thrust into high office, one would have expected MMS to push reforms. Reforms can be defined and prioritised in different ways.
True, UPA-I was left-wing by construction. And some reforms were unacceptable. However, despite that left-wing slant, there were reforms MMS could have pushed, for example, increased efficiency of public expenditure. It would have ruffled feathers, but not in 10, Janpath, or within the National Advisory Council.
Why did MMS choose not to push such reforms? Why, as PM, did he not insist on key individuals in key social sector portfolios during UPA-I? That demand would have also passed muster with 10, Janpath. The point is, multiple power centres or coalition compulsions do not explain MMS not pushing for key changes. MMS opted for the path of least resistance. Good bureaucrats often do that.
This attribute manifested itself more during UPA-II. To put it bluntly, mostly during this term, MMS did nothing, triggering a near-policy collapse. One has to ask of MMS that if, in his second term, economic growth and reforms weren’t on his agenda, what was?
Minds His P and N
There’s the issue about MMS’ foreign policy initiatives. Of course, there have been initiatives: nuclear deal, peace overtures to Pakistan. It’s true that personal history shaped MMS’ foreign policy approach. He shared with many Indians of a certain generation and certain cultural-geographic background, a desire to make an extra effort on Pakistan policy.
MMS also made special efforts on policy vis-à-vis America. Note that unlike many of his contemporaries, MMS had obtained degrees in, and was familiar with, the British, not the American, academic policy establishment. The nuclear deal got him recognition in the US.
However, it can be argued that he seldom displayed the energy he showed in pursuing his foreign policy objectives for economic policy. How could a reformist PM have presided over UPA-II’s long policy drift?
And now, even the Teflon coat is showing cracks, as MMS’ government gets periodically hit by allegations of scams and faces scrutiny from the highest court of the land. No one used to ask what role MMS played in a controversy. Now that question is being asked.
So, MMS will most likely be judged by history as one of India’s most ineffective Prime Ministers. But there’s another judgement on MMS that’s equally valid and important. Manmohan Singh is the best Cabinet secretary India never had.