Dr. Singh’s stewardship of India’s geo-strategic challenges must be given fair marks and future historians may debate if the gains were born of circumstance or strategy.
A period of looming electoral defeat may not be quite the right time to pass judgement on a 10-year term as Prime Minister. Yet, as Dr. Manmohan Singh lays down office, some tentative, preliminary stocktaking becomes inevitable. Seen as a whole, the 10 years are a mixed record of significant achievements of sound economic management, social harmony and strong public policy action on poverty and the social sector on the one hand, and lapsing into policy paralysis, scams and the loss of the will to govern on the other. His credentials as the architect of the 1991 reforms were an important factor in his being chosen Prime Minister, yet the promise that his elevation held remained only partially fulfilled. Ironically, as Dr. Singh bows out of office, the economy is gripped by a serious slowdown, inflation is stubborn, industrial output growth is negative and investment sentiment is at its lowest in recent memory. To be fair, it was not always this bad through the two terms of Dr. Singh. During UPA I, the economy grew at an average of 8.42 per cent (as per Planning Commission data) with 2006-07 seeing a record high of 9.57 per cent growth in GDP. Dr. Singh’s second term though was another story with growth slowing down to an average of 6.70 per cent and falling below 5 per cent in the last two years. The absence of a strong, assertive prime minister was felt in the aftermath of the spectrum scandal and the coal-blocks allocation scam. If the inability to tailor industry-friendly policies caused disenchantment in the corporate sector, disastrous proposals such as the one on retrospective taxation led to a loss of confidence among foreign investors. Dr. Singh was more effective in addressing the needs of another constituency — the urban and the rural poor — with an extensive welfare agenda including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme, the Right to Food legislation, the Right to Education Act and laws on forest rights, land acquisition and disabilities.
Dr. Singh’s stewardship of India’s geo-strategic challenges must be given fair marks — though many of his projects have remained works in progress, and future historians may debate if the gains were born of circumstance or strategy. His 10 years in office saw a choking-off of the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, helped by pressure mounted by the United States on Pakistan. Dr. Singh, notably, came within a hair’s breadth of an agreement with Islamabad on the future of Jammu and Kashmir — in broad terms, trading open borders and enhanced autonomy in return for an end to terrorism and recognition of the Line of Control as an international border — but the democratic movement in Pakistan swept away its military ruler, General Musharraf, and with it the prospect of a deal. Dr. Singh’s efforts to improve the relationship with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, saw significant progress before stalling because of opposition from his coalition allies. India’s entry into the G20 was helped along by his standing as an economist and scholar who could engage with ease with world leaders on global economic issues. Dr. Singh’s first term saw an unprecedented deepening of ties with the United States. Despite strains in recent years, those ties are on a firmer footing than ever before. Little noticed, however, Dr. Singh’s years saw a steady reduction of the lethality of India’s little wars at home, from Jammu and Kashmir to the North-East and the Maoist insurgency. It must also be noted, though, that many of his plans to enhance India’s defensive and offensive security infrastructure remained little more than words on paper. Moves to address India’s largest strategic challenge — securing energy to fuel future growth through the nuclear deal with the U.S., among other initiatives — remain, at best, a work in progress. It was during his tenure, though, that this core issue came to occupy a central place in Indian diplomacy.
Given his own lack of a political base, Dr. Singh was bound to feel the pressures of running a government under the watch of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Perhaps he reconciled himself too readily to a situation where he would be in office while the real authority lay elsewhere. While Ms. Gandhi’s respect for the Prime Minister was never in doubt, the system of dual power centres initially and the emergence of a third power centre in the person of Rahul Gandhi later constrained the working of the government. The National Advisory Council, chaired by Ms. Gandhi, functioned as a shadow cabinet moving and vetting important policy decisions. Not surprisingly, the BJP was able to portray Dr. Singh as a weak and ineffectual Prime Minister and Ms. Gandhi as a powerful extra-constitutional authority. Dr. Singh made matters worse for himself by pleading helplessness in the wake of the 2G spectrum scam. After he was rightfully given some of the credit for the return of the UPA to power in 2009, Dr. Singh saw his popularity and credibility dip very quickly with the unearthing of one scam after another. The image of a clean and incorruptible prime minister gave way to a picture of a prime minister who while retaining his own integrity was tolerant of venality all around, the tolerance coming dangerously close to being seen as complicity. The most telling exposure of the weakness of his authority came in 2013 when party vice-president Rahul Gandhi described as ‘nonsense’ the ordinance granting relief to convicted lawmakers facing the prospect of immediate disqualification following a Supreme Court ruling. The ordinance was in itself politically and morally indefensible and Dr. Singh ended up being seen as the protector of the corrupt and Mr. Gandhi as the party’s uncompromising crusader against corruption. The benign tolerance of corruption was undoubtedly a major flaw. Yet, uniquely among Indian leaders, even in the midst of scams, his personal integrity remained beyond question and he retained a sense of balance and decency in the most trying of circumstances.