Friday, October 31, 2014
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India’s Decade of Decay

NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been in office since 2004, recently held what was only the second press conference of his current five-year term, which is rapidly approaching an inglorious end. Betraying his yearning for approval, Singh told the assembled journalists that he hoped that history would judge his tenure more kindly than his political adversaries do.

That outcome seems unlikely, at best. On the contrary, Singh’s once-great Congress party is now at a political impasse, from which it can escape only if it frees itself from its destructive dynastic leadership. After more than a half-century in government – much of India’s modern life as an independent country – the era of Congress dominance appears to be over.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the party’s decline occurred in December, when it suffered crushing defeats in four key state-assembly elections. In Rajasthan, Congress won only 21 seats, while India’s second-largest political force, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won 162. This represents a massive shift from the 2008 election, when Congress gained 96 seats, compared to the BJP’s 78.

Likewise, in Delhi, Congress was reduced to just eight of 70 seats after 15 years in power, with even Sheila Dikshit, Delhi’s longest-serving Chief Minister, losing her seat to a political newcomer. Only in the small northeastern state of Mizoram did Congress retain its majority.

This was an unprecedented rout – and does not bode well for Congress in the upcoming national elections. To see why – and to determine whether the party can stem its own decay – requires understanding what has happened since Congress regained national leadership from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2004.

As the largest party, Congress became the hub of the newly established United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But, in a surprise move, the party’s leader, Sonia Gandhi, declined to become Prime Minister, naming Singh – an academic and civil servant, with no electoral experience – as the UPA’s choice. After nearly 40 days of melodrama, Singh was finally sworn in, though he had not won voter support directly in any constituency.

This unnatural arrangement instantly earned acid comments. As one observer astutely remarked, “Where there is authority, there is no ability; but where there is some ability, there is no authority.” Despite Singh’s academic abilities, his potential as India’s top politician was severely limited. Over time, it became apparent that Singh’s government was worse than ineffective; it was doomed to fail, because Singh’s strengths lie in serving as an obedient and capable subordinate, not as an agenda-setting leader who acts decisively.

Consider his role in managing India’s economic transformation when he was the country’s finance minister in the early 1990’s – an effort that his supporters have often cited as an example of his vision and ability. Last year, former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh disclosed that it was actually then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, a shrewd and experienced Congress veteran, who pushed India’s economic reform and restructuring. Singh, reluctant to do what was needed, would have achieved very little had Rao not provided a platform – and the needed political support – to pursue the government’s agenda. Early on, there were intimations that Singh should neither be underestimated as a political manipulator, nor overestimated as an effective economic manager.

But Singh’s ineptitude as a leader was already apparent before the revelation of Rao’s role. Not only has economic reform come to a virtual standstill since he took office, but he has also acquiesced to all of Gandhi’s demands, legitimate or otherwise.

As a result, governance, and thus the economy, has been deteriorating. India has been taken hostage by an extra-constitutional body composed of NGOs, brought together under the National Advisory Council, which is chaired by Gandhi. With the cabinet having become superfluous, the NAC’s decrees – including half-baked ideas inspired by the European welfare state – became policy.

As a result, Singh has presided over a sharp economic slowdown and soaring prices, especially for food. Meanwhile, political scandals, financial scams, and other criminal activities have proliferated under Congress rule since 2004. The UPA regime has effectively looted the country, and rampant corruption and a lack of accountability have decimated its leading party’s credibility.

Through all of this, the supposedly economically literate Singh was little more than a silent spectator, offering only denials of responsibility or trite remarks from the perspective of a political outsider. And, while the damage that he has caused to Congress is for the party to solve, the damage that his aloofness has caused to the institution of Prime Minister is a problem for all Indians.

Manmohan Singh’s decade of disastrous leadership has been characterized by weakness and decay. India will suffer the consequences for years to come. Far from vindicating him, historians will know exactly whom to blame.

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  1. CommentedPUNDALIK Kamath

    The prime minister Singh was the chief of corruption- rajand and fallen asleep at the helm. What can you expect from him anywa? Now that he has turned an octogenerian ,he should have retired long time ago and retired into a seniors' home.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    The author, Mr. Jaswant Singh belongs to Bharatiya Janata Party, a rival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress Party. Some of his criticism must be taken with a grain of salt. He deplores "Singh’s ineptitude as a leader". Indeed, Manmohan Singh is known for being a studious former academic and bureaucrat. Yet he is seen as perhaps the cleanest politician in India, untouched by the taint of corruption that has run through many Indian administrations.
    In 2009, ahead of the elections, the then 76-year-old was plagued by poor health, taking a six-week break after marathon heart bypass surgery. He carried on, doing his duty as a loyal servant. If Sing were to blame for the current mass in India, perhaps for having underestimated his ability to lead. He earned respect for his integrity and intelligence, but he also has a reputation for being soft and indecisive. It wasn't always easy to be a concensus builder, presiding over a coalition of sometimes difficult, assertive and potentially unruly regional coalition allies and supporters.
    History in general will remember Singh for preventing India from plunging into bankruptcy and bringing it out of nuclear isolation. In office he continued with his programme of economic reforms including debt relief for impoverished farmers and reform of the tax system in a bid to encourage growth. However some critics claimed that the pace of reform slowed and he failed to achieve the same momentum he had while finance minister.
    It is true what the author says that when Singh was the finance minister, he derived his political capital from the then prime minister, Narasimha Rao. As the prime minister, he derives it from Sonia Gandhi. This explains why he has kept his profile low.

      Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Please read: If Singh were to blame for the current mass in India, perhaps for having overrated his ability to lead.

  3. Commentedsrinivasan gopalan

    With his characteristic sarcasm and a delectable semantic disposition, Mr. Jaswant Singh has aptly denounced the premiership of the overrated economist and underrated politician Dr.Manmohan Singh. But for this one cannot blame Dr.Singh because his party backed him to the hilt as the primus inter pares among a bunch of loyalists to the first family whose grip on the party is as feudal as anyone in democracy could legitimately look askance at with utter contempt. But in a country where legions of people are illiterate and not exposed to the sophisticated viles of both Congress and BJP, a party Mr. Jaswant Singh represents and from which he was recently briefly expelled, it required a total stranger from politics to capture power in the name of poor people in the capital city State Assembly elections. But after assuming power this so-called poor people's party bursts its own self-styled antics and gymnastics so much so that level- headed people in a country with demographic dividend are really faced with a trillemma of choosing representatives from among Congress, BJP or the newly-formed poor people party called Aam Adhmi Party in the imminent 2014 General Elections. Whether history would judge Dr.Singh than what his laments do about lack of recognition from contemporary Indians, the fact remains that history would rate all the political parties in India paricularly after the advent of late Indira Gandhi on the poltiical scene in the 1960s till date as the worst phase of governance where a nation of diversity and continental size wobbled and wobbled in a worse way, belying the hopes and expectations of innumerable Indians. It is time educated and sauve politicians like Mr. Jaswant Singh did not go hammer and tongue against political opponents just because power was thrust on them by a system which allowed diarchy, a watered- down version of monarchy, to rule India for two-terms under the Sonia-Singh UPA dispensation. G.Srinivasan, New Delhi , Inde

  4. CommentedM Patel

    India's Seven Decades of Socialist Decay was rudely interrupted by 7 years of IMF bailout condition & 5 years of centrist BJP rule. In 2004, Nehruvian Socialist came back to power, and reintroduced license,quota red-tape.

  5. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Yes, India is in a state of decay, at least the last decade has shown how lost opportunities acquiesced to the moral disarmament process to stall progress in every direction; the thriving of corruption at the highest levels of office led to the riposte in the latest round of elections where the party in power was routed. The vacuous nature of leadership that the current model has provided for a decade is in sharp contrast to the kind of leadership that all progressive nations have demonstrated and it remains to be seen how the alternate model emerges and in concert with the rest of the polity it is time that India steps out of the stupor when growth truly becomes a no-brainer.

  6. Commentedhari naidu

    In terms of comparative government, Indian democracy is not only rowdy but often unmanageable. With a sub-continental population of 1.2B and growing (younger) you���ve the political mix of a dynamic disequilibrium in motion. And +400M live in poverty in rural India.

    Compare it with mainland China, ruled by a seven (7) men Politburo, the issue of governance becomes central to these two major emerging markets today – as socio-economic development and modernization of centuries old cultures become ever so much constrained and complicated – and for their leaders.

    It’d help if Congress Party could finally jettison the Gandhi dynasty and allow a younger man or woman to lead the party. Will it happen? Perhaps only a very dismal or catastrophic defeat of UAP, in next general election, may do the job of re-generating a new school of young and modern political leaders . But Indian subcontinent is confronted by democratic deficit – governance at Centre and State level – which must be resolved peacefully.

    However it’s a false parody to claim India is decaying; it’s stagnating principally because coalition governments of multi-parties are more often than not ruled by the lowest common denominator. And India cannot afford standing still – at this point in time – as social and political discontent boils over into chaos and disorder.

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