360° Analysis

A Failure in Leadership: The Incompetence of India’s Prime Minister


September 06, 2011 19:34 EDT

Dr. Manmohan Singh’s ineptitude has quickly caused him to fall out of favor.

India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Singh, seems to be at a loss in understanding why Indians across the country are coming out and protesting in support of Anna Hazare. From college students in Bangalore to the Dabbawala delivery men in Mumbai to the housewives in Delhi, the frustration is real and palpable.

Dr. Singh’s cabinet has presided over the largest corruption scandals in the history of India. The amounts involved are so mind-boggling that newspapers are struggling with how to convey the relevance of the numbers. The average Indian knows that corruption is a part of everyday life and that the prime minster cannot realistically be held responsible for this plague. But when scandals happen at his doorstep, under his nose, and he refuses to acknowledge the stench, reasonable accusations of collusion or gross incompetence are sure to follow.

The former Telecom Minister, A Raja, accused of swindling the country of tens of billions of dollars, was appointed to the cabinet by Dr. Singh and defended by the Prime Minister’s Office until Raja’s imprisonment in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. In addition, Suresh Kalmadi, Chairman of Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, was a senior member of Singh’s own party. He orchestrated one of the most media visible scams in the heart of Delhi amidst allegations of financial impropriety.

When Hazare decided to come to Delhi to protest against the government version of the anti-corruption proposal bill to be submitted to Parliament, he was hit with a list of conditions that the Delhi state government said he must fulfill. The police dictated the date, time, place, and number of people with whom Hazare could protest. Most observers could have been forgiven for thinking that they were reading about protest stipulations in China or some tin-pot dictatorship.

The government’s restriction on Hazare’s civil liberties and fundamental rights brought back memories of the darkest era in Indian democracy, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, also a former leader of Singh’s party, declared a state of emergency and suspended individual freedoms in 1975.

Many of India’s current crop of senior leaders, majority in opposition NDA (National Democratic Alliance, a centre-right coalition lead by the Bharatiya Janata Party) but others as supporters of the governing UPA (United Progressive Alliance, a centre-left coalition lead by the Indian National Congress), started their political innings as staunch opponents of the state of emergency. Many even went to jail at a time when it was honorable to do so. The group’s discontent was already apparent after the government conducted a midnight raid on sleeping protesters led by Baba Ramdev, a self-styled holy man. The nation awoke the next morning to live television images of police heavy-handedness.

As Prime Minister of India, Dr. Singh occupies a position that comes with tremendous social and political prestige. In many ways, it is a pulpit from which he is expected to preach and overcome partisan politics. Given his earlier stint as Finance Minister of India during the liberalization of India’s economy and his impeccable credentials as an Oxford scholar, Indians naturally had high expectations of Dr. Singh’s tenure as Prime Minister, which have been wiped out after the increasingly toxic effect of the scandals.

Alas, Dr. Singh has failed miserably. He has refused to come down heavily on the corrupt and instead feigns ignorance or pleads that the masses should avoid judgment until the courts pass a verdict. Singh states this despite being perfectly aware that the guilty in India can live a lifetime and beyond before their open-and-shut case makes it front of a presiding judge. Dr. Singh condemns protests, stating that parliament is the appropriate venue for airing grievances, yet conveniently forgets that Indians rate politicians and parliament at the bottom of trustworthy institutions. The prime minster is sadly mistaken if he believes that parliament, in which more than a quarter of members face criminal charges, is worthy of debating issues of fairness and equality.

Dr. Singh’s ardent supporters point to an honest man who is surrounded by the corrupt. They argue that he is at times helpless, but is trying to make a difference. If this is indeed the case, he must completely change course. His background alone demands it: as Prime Minister, he has reached the highest political post, and his previous positions, which included Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, and Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, dictate that he must become a role model in the world’s largest democracy.

Several days ago, Dr. Singh proclaimed that difficult choices must be made for India to achieve 9% economic growth. Perhaps the most difficult


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