Saturday, October 29

Not His Master's Voice

Praful Bidwai on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

When Manmohan Singh was sworn in as India's Prime Minister 16 months ago, many regarded him as a political lightweight who got that job entirely by virtue of his proximity and loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. He would long remain under the Congress president's shadow, consult her on every issue, if not take all his commands from her.
Many pundits forecast duopoly: two centres of power, one (Gandhi's) greater than the other; or separation between political and economic decision-making. Gandhi would retain primacy in the first; Singh would dominate the second.
This theory started looking shaky rather early on. Singh hand-picked his team, including Pranab Mukherjee, a known security hawk, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, a committed neo-liberal with a strong International Monetary Fund-World Bank background. Ahluwalia would be at least as important as, if not more so than, Finance Minister P Chidambaram.
As Planning Commission deputy chair, he would tremendously influence economic priorities and distribution of Central expenditure. Chidambaram, at the end of the day, is a politician, who cannot ignore his constituency. Ahluwalia has no popular constituency.
However, Singh soon dealt another blow to the duopoly hypothesis. He followed Vajpayee in creating a strong Prime Minister's Office, with its own staff. He had definite ideas about who would be in the Planning Commission or head the Indian Council of Social Science Research. He vetoed more appointments than he approved. Soon, Singh quietly started asserting himself in areas such as foreign policy. His style was never confrontational, but beneath the polite, soft-spoken exterior lay a hard-nosed, shrewd persona.
Today, Manmohan Singh has emerged from Sonia Gandhi's shadow. He's his own man, with definite ideas, projects, policies and preferences. He has left his stamp on many institutions. This in part follows the forceful logic of the office he holds. It cannot be otherwise in a Westminster-style democracy, when the Prime Minister does not preside over a collegium, but is pre-eminent - some might say, excessively important. The exercise of power through the Cabinet and its institutions favours the PM. The PMO multiplies the effect, through its managers, fire-fighters and spin-doctors.
So far, this is pretty straightforward. But it?s remarkable that Manmohan Singh leads (if he fully does) a party with no more than 145 seats in the 545-strong Lok Sabha and yet can rule as if he commanded a single-party majority! This is partly explained by the ideologically disparate, fragmented nature of the Congress's United Progressive Alliance partners (mostly regional or Mandal-inspired OBC parties) and "outside" supporters (the Left, Bahujan Samaj and Samajwadi Parties).
Singh has also left a good deal of party-level political negotiation to others, including Sonia Gandhi, while concentrating on governmental politics. Thus, Gandhi as UPA chairperson "handles" the Congress' allies, while being isolated from many areas of policy-making. And Singh extends his influence to areas to which he is relatively new - foreign affairs and security.
The present balance-of-power and division of labour has allowed the PM to exercise disproportionate influence and become increasingly autonomous of Gandhi and the Congress apparatus. His own political personality is becoming clear.
Regrettably, that personality has its angularities and a dark conservative side. Dr Singh came to power on a broad Left-of-centre platform. But his preferred policies are right-of-centre. This is not a pejorative description. Evidence for it comes from a number of decisions attributable to Dr Singh and his confidants.
Take economics. Singh has been content to follow the broad free-market, pro-liberalisation orientation of the National Democratic Alliance - barring the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the UPA's single greatest achievement. He has continued with the NDA's macro-economic approach, taxation policies, resource mobilisation and allocation priorities, emphasis on foreign investment, commitment to globalisation, and public sector divestment.
Three of Singh's top priorities are 'labour reform' (read, removal of worker protection through hire-and-fire policies), opening up the retail sector to foreign investment (which could ruin millions of small traders and street-vendors), and reaching trade-related agreements on agriculture and services with the OECD. India compromised on this last at the Geneva ministerial of the World Trade Organisation by breaking ranks with the developing countries' G-21 - in contrast to its firm position at Cancun. India's position at the coming crucial Hong Kong meeting will substantially impact its economy.
Earlier, Dr Singh talked of empowering the underprivileged. Now, he only talks of growth. Thus, in his Independence Day address he said: "If we maintain this momentum of growth (approximately 7 per cent) for the next 5-10 years, then it would be possible for us to eradicate poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease. This is not a dream but something that is possible in our times". This regurgitates the notorious trickle-down theory, which stands belied by India's own experience.
However, it's in the foreign and security policy areas that Singh's conservative influence is starkest. These are precisely the areas from which Sonia Gandhi has kept herself away - because she has been so advised thanks to her "foreign origins". Thus, the decision to sign the June 28 defence cooperation and the July 18 nuclear deals with the US were very much Singh's. As was the September 24 vote accusing Iran of "non-compliance" with the NPT.
By all accounts, Singh was greatly impressed by President Bush's interest in India as an emerging power and "partner". But Singh weighed this so much higher than principle or self-interest - in energy security via Iran and Central Asia, and the larger issue of Asian economic integration. Singh's major right-ward turn could cost India dearly.
It's hard to fault Singh's general policy of befriending China or talking peace with Pakistan. But he has often left its actual implementation to dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats. Singh has failed to engage Nepal and Bangladesh, or take a secular, pro-democracy approach.
All in all, Singh's policy record is conservative. He has pushed this through so far without a confrontation with the Left or the Congress, except on BHEL divestment. But this may well change with the Iran-US-India triangle. In that case, Singh may have to clip his ambitions and learn to respect coalitional consensus.

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