The Asia Edition of Time magazine has set the cat among the Indian political pigeons by piling up unpleasant epithets in describing the performance of Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister: An underachiever, a man in shadow, unable to control his Ministers, unwilling to stick his neck out on reforms, and one who has fallen from grace.

The sole, albeit condescending, mention of “the calm confidence he radiated once” , looks more damning, embedded as it is in all the rest of the provocative stuff.

The best way to deal with criticism is to introspect and see whether there is any justification for it. As the ancient Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar put it 2,500 years ago, wisdom lies in heeding sense from whichever quarter it might emanate.

What, after all, is under-achieving? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an under-achiever as “one who fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected”.

Well, the prevalent opinion within the country itself and even among those who are cognizant of the constraints faced by Dr Singh, as the Prime Minister, is that he has not measured up to expectations.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

Unlike all other Prime Ministers, except perhaps his mentor, P.V. Narasimha Rao, he has been withdrawn and uncommunicative, depending on colleagues such as Mr Pranab Mukherjee or Mr P.Chidambaram to manage crises. In that sense, he has been a man in shadow.

The public perception deriving from the many abhorrent scams that had taken place right under his nose is that he has no control over his Ministers.

He himself has confirmed it by listing the many areas in the Finance Ministry left unattended by Mr Mukherjee upon whom he apparently could not prevail.

Certainly, as the article says, there has been a backsliding in economic reforms with no determined effort by the Prime Minister to have the Bills languishing in Parliament touching on some of them passed, and to make a bold pitch for the rest. Which means he has been unwilling to stick his neck out.

I don’t think the article on the whole has been unfair. However, it raises some other interesting issues.

First of all, I don’t understand why there should be such a lot of breast-beating over its publication. The invectives that the media of democracies such as Australia, Britain, Canada and the US frequently use against their own leaders and public figures are far more damaging than the comments of Time magazine on Dr Singh.

Indeed, the ferocity of the satirical barbs to which they are subjected by late night political jokesters is to be watched to be believed. Not once have I known the top leaders of those countries taking cudgels against them. (Of course, US President Richard Nixon unleashed the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation against some of them, but then he was of a distinctly untypical genre.)

Compared with all that, I should say that Dr Singh has been let off lightly with some gentle and civilised admonitions.

INFERIORITY COMPLEX

Secondly, why should we, as a people, regard such remarks as gospel? Neither the Opposition’s bandying them about to lambast the Prime Minister and the UPA-II, nor the UPA spokespersons’ going hammer and tongs at the contents of the article, displays signs of maturity and dignity.

It would have been far more of an effective riposte if the matter had been left to be handled by media scribes with a passing sarcastic quip aimed at the article from some political second-ranker.

After all, media in India too indulge in fulminations against top leaders of Britain, the US and the like.

The political establishments there hardly take any notice of them and go about their quotidian business as if nothing happened. The problem with India is its inferiority complex resulting from its colonial background.

It makes Indians over-sensitive to observations and criticisms originating from industrially advanced countries.

Indians have not yet learnt to judge developments on the political, cultural, literary and other fronts on their own merits, based purely on their relevance to India’s concerns.

For instance, only after Western literary critics gave their seal of approval to the creations of Rabindranath Tagore, R.K.Narayan, Satyajit Ray or Arundhati Roy did the Indians even come to know that they existed in their midst!

Cool it, folks!

(This article was published on July 10, 2012)
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