Saturday, April 23, 2011

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's admirers are his unwitting sycophants and his worst enemies

The danger to Manmohan Singh does not come from his critics in the unreformed communist parties and the degenerate leftie ideologues nor from the envious and intellectually debilitated BJP. It does not also come from members of the Congress party, who have somehow come to accept him now that party president Sonia Gandhi has anointed him as prime minister. But it will come from his admirers and of course they are all honourable, sincere and genuine admirers. They feel that Singh is decent, honest, intellectual and that it has been a long, long time since such a man walked the Indian political stage. One such admirer once admonished me saying, 'You will realise the value of a man like Manmohan Singh once someone like Mulayam Singh Yadav were to become the prime minister." It was for criticising Singh for hectoring Indian scientists at the Indian Science Congress in 2006 that their work should meet the developmental needs of the country. It was a very communist/fascist/socialist exhortation to scientists who pursue knowledge.
Without meaning to be so, these admirers of Singh have turned into the decent prime minister's sycophants. This is bad news for a good prime minister. Let us for the moment assume, like all good economists do, that he is a good prime minister. Singh will not get the true bearings of the real world out there because the admirers explain away all the uncomfortable facts away as insignificant. There cannot be a greater treacherous trap for a political leader than being surrounded by starry-eyed followers. It undid shrewd politicians like Indira Gandhi. She got to hear no bad news and she lost her political ground. The same thing is happening to Singh.
The issue is just not corruption or the constant kow-towing to the United States on major issues. These are facts staring one in the face which Singh's cohort of admirers vehemently deny.
Singh's argument, "I am honest. I am incorruptible. I do not want any tolerance to be shown to corruption. I do not mind the prime minister being brought under the purview of the Lokpal bill. I am willing to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in connection with 2G scam' does not carry conviction because the country is facing problems and corruption is not really the only major one.
Singh is less than honest on the economic situation in the country and in the world. After the 2008 market meltdown, he went on speaking in the same manner as before, saying that we need FDI, that we should open up the economy without realising that FDI sources -- America and Europe -- are in real trouble, and that you cannot any more trade with countries caught in a deep recession. He did not have the intellectual courage and honesty to say that India's cautious opening of the economy has in some ways been a blessing in disguise. He did not have the political courtesy to thank the communists for sounding the alarm, whatever their silly ideological motivation for doing so may have been.
Singh has been riding the two horses of populism and market reforms, and hoping to pull off the trick. Schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) should have been seen for what it is -- an ameliorative measure in times of distress and not a sound economic measure which will contribute to economic growth and to creation of jobs. Instead he went to say rather facetiously that it was because of the rising purchasing power of the rural folk facilitated by schemes like NREGA that there is food inflation. He talks of the need to improve growth in the agricultural sector which he contemptuously ignored during his term as finance minister.
He has also a certain contempt for Indian scientists and the Indian scientific establishment. He thinks it is no good and that we need American help. The contempt is entirely misplaced because the Indian scientific establishment has generally been mediocre and less than mediocre. The sin of Singh is that he did not think of any innovative ways of making Indian science a live wire. He lacked vision and commitment. One of the reasons he went with single-minded fanaticism into the India-US civil nuclear deal is this tacit contempt for Indian scientists. In the same manner, he feels that without American help, Indian agricultural cannot grow. That is why he emphasises time and again the need for agriculture extension workers, American technological inputs and pleads for another green revolution because he has America at the back of his mind. He has every right to hold these views, however ill-founded they may be, but he should expose himself to a national debate instead of pushing policies based on these assumptions surreptitiously.
Manmohan Singh should generally beware of the editors of the pink papers because they are the blind supporters of the market economy and they are blind to the crisis in the market economy. The other Indian economists are generally deferential to those who are in power. So, Singh will not get any frank advise from them. Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen would embarrass Singh openly on Indian policy towards Myanmar and make empty exhortations about spending more on the social sector. But he would never discuss the real problems of a market economy and how they should be set right. Sen plays the game much too cautiously. He never took up cudgels against the market system the way other Nobel laureates like Joseph Stiglitiz and Paul Krugman have done, though it has to be admitted that both Stiglitz and Krugman are both wide off the mark in much of their criticism. Jagdish Bhagwati is perhaps the man to play the role of the friendly critic but he too has been strangely silent about the ongoing market catastrophe.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Singh is politically sinking.

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