The Florentine political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli could well have been writing of Manmohan Singh when he succinctly explained in the seventh chapter of The Prince, his classic treatise on the art of government, how men who become princes either through luck or because of the favour of others tend to be weak rulers. Their effectiveness depends on the benevolence of their patron rather than their own political base: “Such (leaders) stand simply upon the goodwill and the fortune of him who has elevated them—two most inconstant and unstable things.”
The controversial memoirs by Sanjaya Baru, former press advisor to the prime minister, provide an insider’s confirmation of what many had already suspected: real power resided not with Singh but with his political benefactor. The allegations about how key files were shown to Sonia Gandhi before they reached Singh are one example of how constitutional proprietary was thrown to the winds. The flaws in the unique political deal that unexpectedly took Singh to the top post in 2004 became clear as the years went by. India has had to pay the price for a regime at odds with itself.
Singh should not be seen as an innocent victim of this entropic process. He was a willing participant. His first address to the nation in May 2004 was in tune with what he used to say as finance minister: that India should reform its economy to create the conditions for the sort of labour-intensive industrialization that has taken so many other Asian countries out of mass poverty. The government should use its growing tax revenues to build the physical and social infrastructure needed to help citizens take advantage of growing opportunities. That vision soon dissipated into the ether.
The first Singh government failed to pursue the necessary economic reforms that were needed to consolidate the record economic advancement after 2003. It was lulled into believing that the ongoing rapid growth was a birthright and agreed to the frontloading of spending in the mistaken belief that tax revenues would follow.
The second Singh government failed to withdraw the post-crisis fiscal stimulus, as a result of which India was hit by high inflation at a time when the economy was rapidly losing momentum. Some of that excess demand spilled over into the trade account so that India came perilously close to a balance of payments mess once the possibility of global monetary tightening became clear last year. And individual policy acts such as retrospective taxation were bizarre.
The failure of an economist to steer the economy is baffling. One common explanation is that Singh was more focused on foreign policy to secure an emergent India’s position in the world as well as craft his own larger political legacy. A less charitable explanation is that he preferred foreign policy because he was treated with more respect in foreign capitals than in New Delhi. The US-India nuclear deal was definitely a feather in his cap. He had less success in striking a meaningful peace deal with Pakistan, a goal close to his heart.
Singh has said recently he hopes history will judge him better than contemporary critics have.
His long service to the nation since he joined government four decades ago has had many high points, as an economic administrator, especially his role in the landmark economic reforms launched by the government of PV Narasimha Rao. But what has happened in these past few years will darken his public record.
Singh has been a paradox. He is an economist who watched as the economy lost direction. He is a man of exemplary honesty who led one of the most corrupt governments in Indian history. He has been deserted by the very class that richly benefited from the economic reforms. His weakness may be one reason why so many Indians now seek a strong leader in Narendra Modi. These are the dialectical truths that future historians will have to grapple with.–Mint