Manmohan SinghWhen Manmohan Singh took over as India's Prime Minister in 2004, the soft spoken, blue turbaned and low key economist chosen to lead the country, brought a whiff of fresh air after the turbulence and contention that had dominated political discourse in the previous months. In the five years that followed, Singh could do no wrong. Such was the Teflon effect that no charge stuck to him and nothing that the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did, seemed to make a difference. Normally most governments and Prime Ministers are given six months or at best a year as their honeymoon period. In Singh's case it lasted for four years.
Even in 2008, he managed to survive the withdrawal of support to his government by the Left parties on the Indo-US nuclear deal, which he later described as the "high point" of his tenure. He rode the challenges that came with the terror attack on Mumbai that year, which shook India's psyche to the core, and he managed to protect the country from the impact of global recession in 2008/2009, which came to be felt later. Even though there were charges against him for buying up parliamentarians to survive the confidence vote in July 2008 when his government teetered over the nuclear deal, they did not dent his clean image.
In spring 2014, at the end of a ten year stint in power, it is a different story. Ready to walk into the sunset, having ruled out a third term for himself, Singh faces charges of having presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in Indian history. A globally well regarded economist is leaving behind a stagnant economy, unbridled inflation, paralysis of policy, and a weakened Centre for his successor.
First Term: Right to Employment, Food and Information
It is not as if his Government's achievements have been inconsequential, and the ruling Congress Party has been touting these in the run up to the 2014 national elections – like the growing mobile revolution, with a phenomenal 800 million people now having the handset, international airports and the airline sector opened to private players which facilitated travel by an upwardly mobile class, the increased allocations on the education and health sectors.
When the heat and dust has settled, Singh's coalitions Government termed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will also be remembered for the rights based framework it has created. In a country where the gap between the rich and the poor has grown in the last two decades, the UPA provided a statutorily backed right to employment at a minimal level by passing the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in 2005 LINK. It guarantees 100 days of employment a year for a member of a family at 100 Rupees (1.2 Euro) a day, which would ensure a poor family a sum of 800 Rupees (9.5 Euros) a month.
By passing the Right to Education Bill in 2009, the UPA also brought about the right to education for every child in the country, still not universally implemented 67 years after independence. The same year it ensured the right to identity conceptualized in an Unique Identification Card for every Indian citizen which is aimed at ensuring that the benefits of welfare schemes meant for the poor reach them without leakages. And there is the National Food Security Bill passed in 2013 LINK that enacts the right to food as it ensures 35 kilograms of grain at highly subsidized rates per month to poorer families.
However, the most far reaching legislation enacted by the UPA was the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005 LINK, which has initiated a transparency revolution in India and in some way devoured the government which enacted it, with the plethora of scams that have been unearthed. The civil society agitation for clean politics – and for the passage of the Lok Pal Bill (that establishes an independent institution to inquire allegations of corruption) and the spontaneous protests against the gang rape of a 23 year old women in Delhi at the end of 2012 which led to long overdue changes in the rape law – is expected to have a bearing on the elections in 2014 with the entry of the new Aam Admi Party (Common Man Party, AAP), which emerged out of the movement's womb.
Second Term: Stagnating Economy and Mega Scams
Just as nothing could go wrong for the Prime Minister in UPA I from 2004 to 2009, nothing seemed to go right for him in UPA II from 2009 to 2014, even though the Congress had managed to emerge stronger out of the elections in between. The economy, which had ducked the onslaught of global recession, stagnated. Mega scams and corruption scandals hit the headlines without let – from moneymaking in the prestigious Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010, to the 2G spectrum allocation, and the allocation of mining rights for coal. The Government was reeling under their impact as most of these scandals took place during UPA I but they came to light during Singh's second term.
The Reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India pegged the presumptive losses to the exchequer at staggering figures unheard of in the past: 1.76 trillion Rupees (21 billion Euros) in the 2G spectrum scam, in which politicians and government official illegally undercharged mobile phone companies while allocating frequency licenses in return for personal favors; 1.86 trillion Rupees (22 billion Euros) in the "Coalgate" scam that also pointed the finger at Manmohan Singh, since the questionable allocations for mining rights had been made when he, as Prime Minister, also had held the Coal portfolio.
Even more than the scams, galloping prices angered ordinary Indians, as a seemingly helpless government continued to blame global factors for its inability to contain inflation. People made a connection between their growing hardships, and the mega scams which had enabled politicians to make mega bucks at their expense. The elections in December 2013 in the northern states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi saw the rout of the Congress, and it was seen as a foretaste of things to come.
Crisis of Leadership 1: "Avoiding tough decisions to stem the rot"
What, then, went wrong between UPA I and UPA II? The Government had a story to tell. It was not the message that was the problem, it was the credibility of the messenger that became problematic, and unlike before every charge that was leveled seemed to stick.
Thanks to a buoyant economy in UPA I, with a growth rate in the first three successive years averaging 9 percent, the Prime Minister pushed ahead with his reforms agenda and Congress President and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi LINK balanced it with pro-poor measures like the Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the massive 700 billion Rupees (8,3 billion Euros) loan waiver scheme for debt-burdened farmers, as a response to growing inequalities. This helped create a feel good sentiment both in the aspirational middle class and amongst the underclasses and yielded the UPA unexpected electoral dividends.
The coordination mechanism put in place to iron out the differences that arose between the ruling Congress Party and its allies helped a great deal as the committee members met once a month. But unfortunately, this was given a go-by in UPA II. The nature of the coalition in UPA I, with the Left parties, giving it outside support, also kept it on track. The Left's insistence at the outset on a Common Minimum Programme – dispensed within UPA II – helped the government to stay on course. The Left came to play the role of the main opposition, helping to keep the adversarial BJP in check.
Sonia Gandhi's enhanced stature, having relinquished prime ministership which was within her grasp in 2004, enabled her to anchor the UPA I as its chairperson and mediate effectively between contending parties in the coalition, when differences arose, as they did on issues like disinvestment, or on peace with Pakistan. The Prime Minister, who was born in a village in western Punjab, now in Pakistan, had wanted to effect a breakthrough in India's relations with its troubled neighbour but had to be reined in by his party time and again.
"But, governance," as a political wag quipped, "is not just about enacting the RTI or MNREGA or other social welfare legislations. It is about taking tough decisions, to stem the rot when the situation demanded it." This, however, was not done in UPA II.
Crisis of Leadership 2: "There was no one to take charge"
The downturn in the economy between 2009 and 2014 accentuated differences between the government and the party. The Food Security Bill, which was billed as the UPA II's vote catcher and was Sonia Gandhi's pet project, took all of four years to be passed, with many Ministers, including the Prime Minister, seeing it as an avoidable "populist" measure. "It went through so many multiple agencies created to look at the question," said a member of the National Advisory Council, "that no one knew who was more authoritative than the other." Though it finally became a law, there was little time left before the elections to implement it.
A classic example of the drift in UPA II was the way it handled the creation of a separate state of Telengana that was to be carved out of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It announced the decision in December 2009, got cold feet, allowed the situation to simmer and then suddenly woke up nearer election time to pass a bill in early 2014. The flip flop created not just bad blood between the two regions of Andhra Pradesh, but may rob the Congress of the electoral dividend it had hoped Telengana would yield.
The UPA's woes have stemmed essentially from the crisis of leadership that has afflicted it in its second incarnation. There was no one to take charge and lead from the front. Ministers ran their departments as fiefdoms. The Prime Minister ran his government through "GOMs" (Group of Ministers) to take critical decisions. Manmohan Singh has always felt more comfortable with officials than with politicians. His silence on vital issues came in for criticism, as he tip toed around difficult questions.
Sonia Gandhi's illness – she went for treatment of an undisclosed illness to the United States in 2011 – and her decision to step back to make way for son Rahul, and Rahul Gandhi's reluctance to move beyond the vice presidentship of the Congress Party was a recipe for drift that became evident both in the government and in the party.
Though viewed as a future Prime Minister, Rahul Gandhi was diffident about leading from the front till the December 2013 assembly verdicts in north Indian states gave the Congress Party a jolt and the "on and off" scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family LINK finally activated himself. He started to put in place his young team, which should have been done soon after the party's victory in 2009, when young India had viewed him with hope. The last moment transition of power in the Congress Party from old to young has created bad blood between the old guard, fearful of being replaced, and Rahul's more youthful team at a time when the party should have closed ranks in preparation for elections.
"History may judge Manmohan Singh more kindly than his critics"
Would history have judged 81 year old Manmohan Singh better had he retired in 2009? Historian Ramchandra Guha is among those who believes the Prime Minister should have called it quits five years ago. This was however easier said than done. Not only had the Congress projected Singh as its prime ministerial candidate, but the 2009 verdict was as much for him as it was for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and this was evident in the support the party got in the cities, with the urban middle class drawn to an honest and reformist Prime Minister.
What the Prime Minister could have done was to assert more on issues, and drawn the line on the inclusion of tainted figures in his ministry, even as he headed a multi party coalition and moved in step with Sonia Gandhi because the mandate was for a collective leadership, While history may well judge Manmohan Singh more kindly than his critics have done, a hope he expressed not long ago, his rule is a story of missed opportunities, and growing instability in the economy, polity and society. For here was the first Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to rule India for two consecutive terms, the first Indian belonging to a minority community to occupy the hot seat, who destiny had chosen to steer a country of over a billion people. But Manmohan Singh chose to play it safe all through.