India: Manmohan Singh, Architect of India’s Economic Transformation

My only public interaction with Manmohan Singh, India’s now former Prime Minister, was back in 2001-02. Then the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, he was the Chief Guest in the annual festival of my college, Sri Venkateshwara College in Delhi University. A Q&A session followed his address. I have always had a personal curiosity in the development journeys of countries who gained independence/creation around the same time as India, in order to develop learnings in India’s context. Sounds boring, but there are indeed interesting findings from countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Israel, etc.

A lot of text is available on East Asian countries. Hence, my question was on his thoughts of the factors that helped Israel develop so rapidly. There was nothing personal about my choice of country, nothing to do with the Jew vs. Arab debate. The question was just on a country’s economic journey. Despite the incident being vintages ago, I remember his answers to my Israel question. There was no political or ideological content in his points, instead they related to management aspects, demographic and socio-cultural traits of its people, priorities in foreign policies, magnitude of the country, sources of capital flows fuelling its enterprises, etc. In short, the ground-level viewpoint of a country’s development journey, which he said in a quiet, yet effective, tone instead of the loud, opinionated style that characterises most politicians.

I recall this incident now, at a time when the country has seen enough mud-slinging to his name. Politics in India has been murky at times. Moreover, coalition politics is not easy, with the partners intent on extracting their “pound of flesh” like Shakespeare’s Shylock, at the expense of the country’s development agenda. The college incident reminds me of the academic might of this noted economist, his command over the micro-level intricacies of what has made the modern-day world the way it is, the impartial stance of his opinions and the quiet efficacy in which he made his point across. Not many people have this command over knowledge and poise, definitely not many who are revelling in public banter in his name today.

The challenges confronting him in politics were manifold – a situation of “responsibility without authority”. There was power-play from his party’s leadership, which undermined his authority in his government. There was power-play from coalition partners, from whom emerged ‘scamsters’. It was tough to remove them since the partner’s exit from the government would put the country in a deeper political mess. The global slowdown occurred at the worst possible time, impacting investments and demand for Indian products. Managing such challenges was no easy task. If he had the strength of numbers and was not at the mercy of the whims of his coalition partners, just like Narendra Modi now does, maybe his performance from 2010-11 onwards would have been something else. But the buck stops with the leader and he was in that post, and has to bear responsibility for the corrupt practices of those around him. Critics might argue the need to take up the role of Prime Minister in the first place? But back in 2004, there were very few senior-level, respectable, a-political and impartial alternatives the Congress leadership had. Failure to nominate someone in time might have left the country facing an uncertain, ungoverned future. So, someone had to take up the public responsibility at that time.

It was Manmohan Singh who drew the blue-print of India’s economic reforms in 1991, when India was facing a severe crisis and near-insolvency. His agenda brought the economy back from the brink, and put it on a path of economic transformation which brought India in the notice of the global business and investor community. India’s younger generation, many of whom enjoy the benefits that this economic transformation brought to their lives, should remember this. Today, if we are enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle, career opportunities, conveniences to choose from, then this gentleman is a major reason for it. If Narendra Modi has been effective in bringing in foreign investor interest for Gujarat’s development, it was Manmohan Singh who sowed the seeds of this economic manifestation in the first place. Even in the case of his UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, the years from 2004 to 2011 did see robust economic growth. That graph dwindled only in the following years as the challenges grew in magnitude. Apart from the Indo-US nuclear deal which he went for courageously despite exit-threats from coalition partners, the Right to Information and the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence can also be attributed to him. Corporate India should remember his Rural Employment scheme, which improved rural income despite being seen a non-asset creating project burdening India’s public finances. The growth in rural income increased demand for consumer products, two-wheelers, etc. The Indian consumer sector has been a toast of foreign investors in recent years.

The personality traits of this gentleman set him apart from his peers in the political fraternity. Traits like integrity, ethics and calm dignity are rarely found in the political world. Despite the barrage against him, he did not once stoop low with retorts. Dignity often does not get the respect it deserves. More so in India where loud, emotion-ridden outbursts in public are seen as strength and quiet, calm poise as submissiveness and subservience. In the murky world of politics that India has seen in recent years, it would have been easy to “join the gang”. But he maintained his virtues of personal honesty and integrity. Given his role as a political leader, perhaps a more effective communication to the grassroots-level to explain the rationale of his government’s social-welfare schemes might have benefitted it. Nevertheless, he remains a gentleman, diplomatic and level-headed, the way I remember him from that incident in my college. Perhaps it was his reputation for integrity that damaged his own reputation.

At this time when many admire Modi for his humble origins, let us also recall Singh also had a humble background due to the migration following the 1947 Partition. From there, he rose to make his indelible mark in one of the biggest economic transformation stories the world has ever seen. Most would remember him for his personality traits and economic achievements. As he leaves office now amidst the scandals, controversies and mud-slinging, at least he can walk out with his head held high and without a mark to his name — one of India’s few good men.

Image Courtesy: NDTV India

Originally published here – http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/2014/05/20/34923

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