Thursday, June 30, 2011

Manmohan Singh at last finds his voice

His opening remarks are more likely to be taken as read, that is not read

New Delhi: What the television news channels have been showing on the ticker were the answers he gave during his interaction with some of the editors on Wednesday, a last-ditch attempt as it were to save his face and that of his party and his government. The answers were indeed weak and even diffident.

But what is of more interest and greater importance are his opening remarks which show Singh in his element. He is professorial, professional, knowedgeable and who understands the inherent uncertainties of any situation, what economists would call 'incomplete information'.

Singh struck a forceful and even a personal anecdote from his days as a student in the University of Cambridge, citing the remarks of Sir Paul Chambers, chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries. The industrialist had apparently told the the students, of whom the prime minister was one, “ an uncertain world in which we live, if 5 out of 10 decision I take ex-ante turn out to be correct ex-post that would be considered a job well done.”

And he prefaced this anecdote with his own formulation: “...I would like to tell you that if you are taking governmental decisions, particularly big macro decisions, we don't know all the facts and yet we have to take decisions.”

He pressed home his point when he said pointedly that the Comptroller and Auditor General and a parliamentary committee have more facts with them than with the people when they took a decision. This is certainly a professorial argument which might not satisfy the political opponents and even the ordinary people. But Singh has taken a stance and he is speaking in the language he knows – that of his theoretical assumption, so dear to economists.

The un-ideological man that he is, he said that whatever the ideological morrings of any political party, it is difficult for any one of them to satisfy the aspirations of miilions of people who want to get out of pverty, disease and ignorance except through a rapidly expanding economy which can create 10 to 12 million jobs, and this cannot be done except through skilled citizens and systems of skill formation.

This is abstract language in the xtreme, but it is good that Singh has spoken it because the people will at last know that they are indeed dealing with a don of a different class from the one we are used to in iour metros and outside places of learning.

Admitting the need to curb corruption and trace the criminal elements, he said, “But in all these my worry is to avoid a situation when we convert this vast country of over 1.2 billion people into a state where everybody is policing everybody else. We must not bring back the license permit raj which we sought to abolish in 1991. “
And he went on to say, “I think our nation has prospered as a result of that. If you look at the list of top 100 firms today you will find a sea change in that list today. New entrepreneurs have come into the list. These are some of the gains of liberalization which we must cherish, we must nurse and we must develop.”

And in an uncharacteristically aggressive note, he accused the media of being the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge.

The most personal note of his statement was his confession that he had been a bureaucrat and bureaucrats should not all be tarnished with the same brush. “But quite frankly I have been a civil servant all my life, except the last 20 years. What surprises me is not that there are corrupt civil servants but that despite all the temptations, so many of our civil servants remain honest and lead frugal lives and this is the mainspring that we have to tap.”

Manmohan Singh made a mistake. He has spoken rather well, indeed very well, rather late in the day. Instead of baring his heart and mind, thoughts and feelings to the people of the country, he gave out these written remarks to a small group of editors.

P.V.Narasimha Rao made a fighting speech in defense of secularism in Lok Sabha in 1996 after Congress lost the election. The wags remarked, “If only he had made this speech earlier.” Possibly, the same will be said of Singh as well.

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