NEW DELHI – In September, India’s mild-mannered prime minister, Manmohan Singh, turned 80. He also turned a page: After months of being pilloried by every pundit with a soapbox for indecision and weakness, and for presiding over “policy paralysis” while corrupt colleagues allegedly made off with the country’s silver, Singh has boldly seized the initiative. A series of reform announcements, and some frank talk to the public, have underscored his new message: “I am in charge.”
The initial steps that he has announced are impressive. Several controversial provisions included in the government’s last budget are being reviewed. Foreign direct investment will be allowed to enter the retail sector and civil aviation – bold decisions that cost the government the support of a recalcitrant coalition ally.
Likewise, the government has reduced subsidies on diesel and cooking gas in the face of vociferous opposition, including a one-day strike that shut down the country. And more reforms are in the works, sending an unmistakable signal that India is not ready to be written off, as had seemed to be happening earlier amid tales of investor flight and credit-rating downgrades.
The rebirth of Singh the reformer came after a long wait. As Finance Minister in 1991, Singh unleashed the liberalization of the Indian economy. “No power on earth,” he memorably told Parliament, quoting Victor Hugo, “can stop an idea whose time has come.”