When Manmohan Singh assumed office in 2004, there was a sigh of relief, as the Congress had chosen an economist with a reputation of impeccable personal integrity to lead the Government. He took over at a time when policies of economic liberalisation initiated by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had set the country on course of high growth.
The preceding NDA years had been marked by prudent fiscal management and a process of defence modernisation was underway to deal with challenges from Pakistan and China.
On foreign relations, UPA-1 inherited policies that had led to better relations with the US, Russia and the EU, together, with moves for greater economic integration with the countries of South, Southeast and East Asia.
In what was evidently his valedictory press conference, the Prime Minister candidly admitted: “My best moment as PM was when we struck a nuclear deal with the US”. The Government, however, failed to explain to people in India what the India-US nuclear deal really involved.
It was never clearly explained that as a non-signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India was facing sanctions on access to all high-tech items which had dual uses, and that its economic growth and modernisation was suffering because of sanctions by 45 members of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.
Ending sanctions A country facing such sanctions could obviously not play the role of a responsible, technologically advanced power.
Moreover, given its vast resources of thorium, India has unlimited potential for development of nuclear energy. But, for this process to be kick-started, it needs vast amounts of uranium ore, essential for installing new uranium-fuelled nuclear power reactors. It lacked exploitable indigenous uranium resources for such a programme — a vital shortcoming, which the nuclear deal has overcome.
The most significant aspect of the India-US nuclear deal was that it ended global nuclear sanctions, without eroding or compromising our nuclear weapons programme. Despite this, the deal faced serious domestic political opposition, especially from the UPA’s communist allies. India’s communist parties, unlike their Chinese counterparts, are still wedded to the dogmas of Marxism-Leninism, which have been discredited everywhere, especially with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s economic reforms.
Adding to Manmohan Singh’s troubles was Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s lack of enthusiasm towards economic liberalisation and her aversion to countering the communist efforts to torpedo the deal.
For observing that the Congress was not backing the Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was compelled to quit. Baru’s departure from the PMO had far reaching effects on the functioning of Manmohan Singh and his office. The PM lost his only aide who could keep him frankly informed of media and public opinion.
Wrong credits Most independent analysts were convinced that UPA’s electoral victory in 2009 was primarily because Manmohan Singh had quietly overseen a period of rising economic growth and prosperity, with manageable and publicly acceptable levels of inflation.
The Congress, however, chose to interpret this victory as a ringing endorsement of the pParty president’s populist programmes and a rejection of economic liberalisation.
Moreover, UPA-2 saw ministers from not only the Congress, but also its allies, openly disregarding the Prime Minister’s wishes.
This was all too evident in the actions of A. Raja in the 2G Scam and the inefficient and less than transparent manner in which the Commonwealth Games were mismanaged, amidst allegations of widespread corruption.
Moreover, two successive environment ministers, political lightweights who have never won even a panchayat election, stalled, delayed and even denied clearances for vital industrial and infrastructure projects, with the Prime Minister unwilling and evidently unable to rein them in.
Things inevitably reached a state where the Prime Minister was seen as being unable to even select officials for the PMO. He was saddled with a spokesman known to have been chosen by the courtiers in 10 Janpath. Even his Principal Secretary, a competent official, was known to be the choice of 10 Janpath.
The Prime Minister soon did not have a spokesman, while his office had a functionary initially designated as “Communications Adviser to the Principal Secretary”.
Return to populism In the meantime, the Congress decided to return to its old ways of populism and fiscal profligacy, while neglecting the reforms process that commenced in Narasimha Rao’s tenure and were taken forward by the NDA.
Moreover, while the Prime Minister retained his reputation for probity, his government was soon seen as the most corrupt of its kindever in independent India. To make matters worse, economic populism and a growing budget deficit slowed growth, spiralled inflation, led to an unacceptably high current account deficit and the depreciation of the rupee.
In this environment, India’s standing in the world suffered, with global ratings agencies contemplating downgrading the country’s credit rating.
Internationally, the Prime Minister was seen as losing control and authority, most notably on relations with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. His inability to devise a political strategy and overrule his own cabinet ministers from Tamil Nadu, who were publicly eroding his influence to decide rationally on his visit to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Summit, only confirmed that the Prime Minister’s writ over his government and in his party was waning precipitously.
Not surprisingly, chief ministers in States such as West Bengal did not see any merit or gain in being influenced by New Delhi, when the writ of the Prime Minster was limited in the capital itself.
Recipe for failure Manmohan Singh spoke emotionally about his “legacy.” He held that history would judge him more positively than the media in India.
There is little doubt that if he had called it a day after his first term, he would have left in a blaze of glory, as a prime minister who took economic growth to near double digits, ended global nuclear sanctions and was a shining example of personal financial integrity.
This reality cannot be wished away.
At the same time, condoning corruption is a charge that will continue to haunt him.
It is a pity he did not realise in 2009 that a fractious parliamentary democracy dominated by an all powerful Congress leader with power and no constitutional responsibility on the one hand and a prime minster with constitutional responsibility, but very limited executive power, or political influence on the other, was a recipe for disaster.
(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)