360° Analysis

For God’s Sake, Go!


June 12, 2012 15:11 EDT
Mayank Singh analyzes why India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh should quit office.

'The slip', as the adage goes, 'is showing' for the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. With corruption scandals tumbling out of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s closet, his rant of "quitting public life, if charges against him were proved" has been met with derision. While Manmohan may be absolved of personal corruption, his predilection for turning a blind eye towards it has tarnished his legacy. The usually reticent Manmohan's outburst against the anti-corruption activists, accusing them of "spreading canards and falsehoods", betrays an anxiety emanating from growing public discontent with his government. 

Ironically, the Congress, the major party in the UPA, exploited Manmohan's much vaunted 'integrity' and 'probity in public life' after winning the general elections in 2004.

The dispute over the foreign origin of the Italian born Sonia Gandhi, the undisputed leader of the Congress party, led to a political crisis that threatened to spoil the victory of the UPA. Instead, it served as a catalyst for Sonia to appoint Manmohan as the Prime Minister.

The Congress killed two birds with this political masterstroke. It helped Sonia take the wind out the opposition sails and discard claims of political avarice. Importantly, Manmohan's lack of experience in public life and pliant personality ensured that he could never threaten the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which controls the party autocratically.

Prior to his promotion to Prime Minister, Manmohan's experience in public life was restricted to a stint as Finance Minister in the Narsimha Rao led Congress government in the early 90s. Incidentally, he has never won an election and has consistently been a member of the Rajya Sabha, the house of the states, an archaic system modeled on the British House of Lords.

The dichotomy which arose from the distribution of power between Sonia, who was designated as the chairperson of the UPA and Manmohan has become the prime reason for the egregious governance in the country. Sonia lacks responsibility but wields actual power, whereas Manmohan is bereft of the authority he requires to fulfill his duties. Ministers in the central cabinet have exploited this dichotomy, running ministries like personal fiefdoms. Congressmen look upon Manmohan as a genteel individual, as a stopgap arrangement who is keeping the throne warm for Sonia’s son, Rahul.

The subtle mood in the party has been aptly surmised by the Reuters news agency, which referred to Rahul as “India’s reluctant emperor”. The article cited party sources asserting that Rahul could become the Prime Minister “if he wanted to, in a few hours, taking only the procedural time”. Curiously, the Congress party never contradicted the averments in the article.

The denigration of the position of the Prime Minister under Manmohan has been so dramatic that not only does the party bide time for Rahul’s coronation, but even the cabinet ministers openly flout his directives on policy matters.

A. Raja, the former telecom minister, rejected Manmohan’s directive for fair and transparent allotment of telephone spectrum and proper revision of license fee for mobile telephony. The disregard for Manmohan's directives culminated in a massive scam, popularly referred to as the ‘2G scam’. The 2G scam made Manmohan appear as an effete leader silently witnessing the rapacious plunder of the country's resources, unable to raise a finger in protest. Citing ‘coalition compulsion’ as an alibi for not taking any action against a rogue minister, Manmohan demonstrated that he was pusillanimous and unable to govern. 

Manmohan’s silence has encouraged his cabinet and party colleagues to launch vituperative attacks on the institutions of governance. Kapil Sibal, who succeeded A. Raja as the telecom minister, ridiculed the calculation of loss in the 2G scam arrived at by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), as fallacious. Congress politicians have openly ascribed motives bordering on the defamatory to the acts of the CAG. No consideration was accorded to the fact that the CAG is a constitutional authority responsible for auditing government’s accounts and is respected worldwide for its rigorous methods of calculation.

The fact that the same assessment has been utilized by the Supreme Court of India to strike down the award of contracts by the government for 2G spectrum has been conveniently overlooked in the hullabaloo. Even the much maligned Central Bureau of Investigation, the government agency which is seen more as an instrument of the ruling elite, was compelled to use the CAG's assessment to send the accused, including corporate big-wigs, to jail.  

The CAG has not been the only institution under fire from the government. The judiciary has been upbraided for stepping out of line. In policy decisions the Parliament has been routinely ignored. The practice of announcing major policy initiatives outside the Parliament is increasingly becoming the norm.

The controversy about the age of the ex-Army Chief, General V.K. Singh, exemplified the government’s inability to handle institutions appropriately. Unnerved by a stubborn General who stood his ground and sought justice, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) resorted to chicanery. Confidential communication pertaining to defense preparedness was surreptitiously leaked to a gullible media by the PMO. Innuendoes were dropped regarding the General being the source of the ‘leak.’

Manmohan’s silence when institutions are under siege from his own government has given rise to the perception that he presides over a venal government, which is at odds with any institution which exposes its misdeeds. The damage to Indian institutions under Manmohan’s premiership could prove to be irremediable.

The Congress’s decimation in major state elections under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has led to the postponement of his anticipated succession until he recovers from the mauling by the electorate. The drift in governance is perceptible with the government evidently waiting for the next general elections in 2014.

Manmohan is entirely unable or unwilling to make decisions. Legislations and economic reforms have been put on hold under pressure from allies. The government seems to have abdicated all responsibility towards governance.

Manmohan has faced some scathing criticism from his even his counselors. Raghuram Rajan, his honorary economic advisor, referred to “governance besmirched by corruption scandals” and “paralysis in growth-enhancing reforms”.

Manmohan’s proclivity for indecision combined with the global economic crisis has ensured that the Indian economy is confronted with an economic slowdown. For a leader whose academic background of economics was supposed to be his strength and who has been projected as a ‘super’ finance minister by his party, the performance on the economic front has been a disaster. India’s GDP has plunged to a nine year low at 5.3% for the fourth quarter of 2011-12. Industrial growth has been dismal, falling to 2.8% for 2011-12, with the manufacturing sector performing abysmally. Agriculture, which is still the major profession in the country, is not doing well either but it has never been a priority for Manmohan.

The economic slowdown carries ominous portents for the country. With 60% of India’s population below 30 years of age, the country can ill afford rising unemployment. Deepak Parekh, Chairman of the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC), India’s leading housing finance company, succinctly surmised the situation as the “start of a civil strife”.

The precarious economic situation has been exacerbated by the introduction of an ill-thought-out retrospective tax provision for business transactions. Akin to shifting goal posts after the game has started, the proposed tax law is scaring away potential foreign investors, notwithstanding government assurances. For an economy under stress, any adverse movement of foreign investment could sound like death knell.

Manmohan appears to be prescribing to the practice of ‘trial and error’ as an economic model. Interest rates on deposits were raised to bring down inflation. The resulting scarcity of liquidity in the market initiated an industrial slowdown, thereby driving inflation higher. As if to atone for the mistakes, the government has now reduced interest rates. Inflation however continues its upward growth with the government in its typical denial mode. Knee jerk reactions rather than sagacity can only lead the nation to peril.

India is rapidly slipping into a morass with a government that is blissfully unaware of what it is supposed to do. The supercilious attitude of those in power unwilling to stand up and be counted is taking the country further down a path of no recovery. The anger amongst the people, exasperated with corruption and unemployment, is steadily rising. The veneer of Manmohan’s personal integrity and economic wizardry, is wearing thin. 

Oliver Cromwell could well have been speaking for the hapless Indian populace when he addressed the Rump Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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