Posted by: John Elliott | May 28, 2010

Manmohan Singh displays his own and his government’s limitations

Whose fault is it if a press conference billed in advance as a major event is a muddled flop? Blame the person giving the press conference? Or his advisors, or the media for not asking perceptive questions? 

That question has being doing the rounds here since Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, (below) gave mostly dreary answers for more than an hour on Monday at what was supposed to be an important media event to celebrate the first anniversary of the coalition government that he heads. 

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 He said virtually nothing new and developed no themes on major issues – not on talks with Pakistan (which he is pushing), economic policy (he is a professional expert), nor on dealing with Naxalite rebels (he has for three years billed this as India’s major internal security problem). He thus failed to put his personal stamp of authority on a fragmented government. 

While his media and other advisers should certainly have made sure he was better focused and prepared, the real problem is Manmohan Singh’s own political nervousness and lack of authority over ministers who, for better or for worse, follow their own lines of thought and behaviour. 

The prime minister of course is not a natural politician. Some 25 years ago, I used to visit him for the Financial Times in Mumbai when he was the Reserve Bank of India’s governor. Always interesting, he would talk, among other things, about the challenges of trying to benefit everyone when developing a poor country. That helped me, as a new foreign correspondent, to grapple with this vast country, including the militant Khalistan campaign then raging in his home state of Punjab. Then he came to Delhi to run the Planning Commission and was equally discursive. 

Later, when I returned to India in 1995, I caught up with progress on economic liberalisation that had started in 1991 by listening to him make brilliantly argued, and sometimes even passionate, speeches about the need for India to open up. He was then finance minister, and he and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, then finance secretary and now head of the Planning Commission, were interchangeable as worthy speakers. 

Then Congress lost power and I found him gradually less and less open as he shrank back into the reticence of a guarded politician. Sadly, I went to see him less. 

That is the man who last Monday sat bizarrely alone on a huge stage at the government’s Vigyan Bhawan main conference hall (below), facing several hundred journalists in tiers of seats so remote that it was impossible to generate the mood of a participative press conference. Very few ministers turned up to support him, though he brought some top advisers from his office. 

‘Singh adds econ logic to Pak peace bid’ 

His most interesting remark was when he linked, publicly for only the second time I believe, the idea that India “cannot realise its full development potential unless we have the best possible relations with our neighbours – and Pakistan happens to be out largest neighbour”. He should have explained this thought in order to give shape and logic to his highly controversial policy of opening talks with Pakistan, despite its role as an anti-India terrorist base. 

Imagine the headlines – “Pakistan peace will boost India to 12% growth”, or “Singh adds econ logic to Pak peace bid”. That would have made international headlines. There might have been one or two negative pitches such as “Singh admits Pakistan stunting India’s economy”, but who’d care when the positive message would have been out. We might have all understood, at least partly, why the prime minister is so keen.

Singh does not have full party support for this initiative, and Sonia Gandhi has not spoken out on it in the supportive way that she did when he pushed through last year’s nuclear deal with the US. For some reason, the Gandhi’s were keen on that deal, but do not seem to see the same benefit in the Pakistan initiative, which of course has scarcely any chance of achieving much in the foreseeable future.

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 His worst answer was when he virtually condoned the widely recognised corruption of A.Raja, the telecoms minister, quoting Raja’s implausible defence that he was following government policy when handling suspect telecom licence auctions in 2008. Since he cannot sack Raja because of coalition priorities, this indicated that  the prime minister did not have the guile or courage to deal with such a sensitive issue with the media.

His most revealing remarks were when he said that questions of his retirement did “not arise” because of he had unfinished tasks to tackle – and then later agreed with a questioner that sometimes “younger people should take over”. In that context, he said he would be “happy to make way” if  and when the Congress Party decided he should. (The “young”  there of course was Rahul Gandhi, and “Congress” was his mother Sonia who heads the party). That showed how deeply conscious Singh is of being prime minister only at the pleasure of the Gandhi family.

He failed to develop themes on tackling Naxalite rebels at a time when his government is split about whether they should be seen as terrorists or a developmental problem. He also dodged questions about massive illegal mining in Orissa, government splits over whether people should have to declare their caste in a new national census,  and state-level disputes over scarce water resources.

The question on mining gave Singh a marvellous opportunity to give a broad-based answer publicly supporting Jairam Ramesh, India’s first non-corrupt policy-oriented environment minister for a decade. Ramesh is trying to stop illegal mining in several states. He is facing stiff opposition from politicians both within and outside the coalition, not only on mining but also other projects – many illegal and involving corrupt vested interests. He should have been given vocal prime ministerial support.

These omissions were significant because they are almost all issues that divide the government, where Singh does not have the political will or freedom to take the lead. This is  partly because Sonia Gandhi is in charge of party and coalition politics, and partly because, as I wrote last week, he does not dare (nor has the authority) to risk upsetting coalition partners.

When asked about his differences with ministers, he replied “It would not be proper for me to, I think, discuss these issues in broad public daylight” – sitting in the brightly lit the conference hall. “Then turn out the lights”, laughed one journalist. 

The government is of course functioning adequately despite all the policy problems, corruption, and lack of prime ministerial drive and authority. From Sonia Gandhi’s and the party’s point of view, keeping the coalition intact is a primary issue till the next general election due in 2014. What a lot India is missing as a result! 

“If wishes were horses even beggars would ride”, said the prime minister with a rare flash of whimsical humour when asked if he would rather have the more structured relationship of his 2004-09 Left-supported coalition than the current hotch potch of parties. 

If only they were……….. 


Responses

  1. […] today. This is the second time in a year that he has failed to run an adequate press conference. He did the same last May at a big media event, where he said virtually nothing new and developed no themes on major issues. It is unfair […]

  2. John,

    A friend in the Corporate Sector descibed Dr. Manmohan Singh as being the Executive Director and not the CEO and Chairman of the Board in running the Government. I believe that contrary to popular perception, he is very shrewd poltically and his lying low after the Congress defeat in 1996 was what made him the logical choice to be PM, once Mrs. Sonia Gandhi decided to drop out of the race.

    Finally, the person who deserves real praise for economic liberalization and in manging Indian Foreign and Security policies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never got his role fully appreciated, was Mr. Narasimha Rao. Dr. Manmohan Singh gave shape to and executed what Narasimha Rao wanted. – Partha

    thanks Partha – I certainly agree on Narasimha Rao and wrote just that here in January – see http://wp.me/pieST-V5 -asking ‘Why airbrush Narasimha Rao out of history?’ je

  3. John

    Well done. Coalition dharma dictates the conscious and the fate of a billion plus. God save us. Regards, BK

  4. This was a serious mistake. Why mark the anniversary in power at all? Why do it in a form with which the PM is uncomfortable and where he can say nothing of substance? And in such an unprepossessing setting?
    The whole episode has made the Government which had had a good month politically look tired and defensive.
    Bring back Sanjaya Baru…..!

  5. Enlightening Analysis. Blessed is a country that has excellent local journalists and sympathetic foreign correspondents who know their stuff. It’s getting rare…

  6. The best analysis of the press conference I’ve read so far. Most insightful and very obviously from the pen of a writer who knows his India inside out.


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