One expected that the Prime Minister would give the nation a new vision. But that has not happened. Rather, the economy has witnessed an unprecedented slowdown
Dubbing of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh as “underachiever” by the Time magazine has naturally captured media attention in India. This has added fuel to the debate regarding the Prime Minister’s image and his capacity to lead the nation. The question is definitely not who is saying what. It is certainly not whether the Western media or governments appreciate Dr Singh or not. The Prime Minister does not need any certificate from any outsider. But for Indians, this is a serious matter.
After being in office for nearly a decade now, the relevant question is how ordinary Indians assess Dr Singh’s performance. Time’s cover story titled “A Man in Shadow” came just at a time when Indians were assessing the leadership quality of their Prime Minister and his performance as the leader of the nation. Political rhetoric either in favour or against him will not make the right assessment. The important question is not what Congress or the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) minus Congress says about him. Equally, it is not about what his political opponents say. It is better to see how Dr Singh, as the leader of the world’s largest democracy, has delivered for us.
First, has Dr Singh emerged as a leader to lead this country? The Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004. The obvious choice for the Congress and most of the alliance was Sonia Gandhi to lead. But the foreign origin issue of Mrs Gandhi ultimately compelled the Congress president to change her mind and search for an alternative. Speculations went on for almost a fortnight. Names of Congress veterans like Pranab Mukherjee and others geared up speculation. But all were waiting for the green signal from Mrs Gandhi.
The declaration of Dr Singh as Prime Minister surprised many. Above all other things, it showed that Dr Singh was neither a common choice nor the first choice of the Congress. The creation of the post of UPA chairperson for Mrs Gandhi was an effort to provide her the authority and legitimacy to move in the power corridor of New Delhi with ease. Thus the Congress projected someone as the leader of the nation but decided to control him through remote control just for the sake of Mrs Gandhi. Dr Singh thus became a puppet dancing on the strings of Mrs Gandhi for many Indians.
Has that changed? Has Dr Singh emerged with true leadership qualities during these years? How much is he important for the government he leads? Well, he has failed to break the shell and decided to hold the post of Prime Minister with a lame-duck image. He, naturally, has failed to deliver as per the expectations of the nation.
Second, as Finance Minister in the 1990s, Dr Singh gave a vision to the Indian economy. No doubt, he is the person who dared to think out-of-box against conservative economic policies. He introduced Indians with terms like liberalization, privatization and foreign investment, and implemented these despite stiff opposition. He was truly an economic trend-setter in the new global order.
One expected that as Prime Minister Dr Singh would give the nation a new vision. But that has not happened. Rather, the economy has witnessed an unprecedented slowdown. Inflation, descending growth rate, poverty, and price rise virtually paralysed the economy that kept millions bereft of even the basic amenities of life. The much-hyped project to fuel oxygen to the rural economy has failed. The economy has become directionless under the leadership of the same person who had once shown the nation the way to emerge as an economic powerhouse.
Third, Dr Singh as Prime Minister has surrendered before scams and corruption. This has raised a question regarding his own credibility and efficiency to lead the nation. The movement initiated by veteran social activist Anna Hazare has unmasked Dr Singh, his cabinet colleagues, members of the ruling alliance, bureaucrats and almost the entire machinery run by him. His tenure of the office will be remembered for people hitting the street spontaneously in protest against corruption.
And fourth, as Prime Minister Dr Singh has always failed to handle issues with authority. Uneasy relations and lobbyism in his cabinet still exists. This has made affairs tougher for him. This has helped Pranab Mukherjee to evolve with the image of UPA trouble-shooter. In fact, it is Mukherjee who had to answer all controversial questions in Parliament. Even after mass demonstration, it is Pranab Mukherjee who took the leading role in Parliament during the hot debate on the Jan Lokpal Bill.
In fact, when the government came under severe criticism over many issues, including the proposed Lokpal, Dr Singh decided to keep a safe distance and put all responsibilities on Mrs Gandhi and Mukherjee. His excessive dependence on other Congress veterans made him almost irrelevant in the policy-making of the UPA.
Undue importance to leaders like Mukherjee naturally annoyed others. One obvious example is the uneasy relation between Mukherjee and P Chidambaram. Almost during the entire term of UPA-II till date, both Mukherjee and Chidambaram have tried to show each other down.
As per reports, many of the UPA ministers are not even on talking terms. Added to this is the pressure made by coalition partners, particularly the Trinamool Congress. The tug of war between the Congress and the TMC in West Bengal has turned worse.
Dr Singh has also failed to bring consensus in the UPA for the Presidential election. In fact, he has made no such effort to do that.
It is clear that the academic-turned-politician has failed miserably to deliver to the nation at a time when the region around has been evolving rapidly. Time’s assessment may indicate Dr Singh’s failure in economic affairs or something beyond. But for ordinary Indians, he lacks the required leadership quality to run a vast country like India. From the household affairs of the UPA to Parliament, Dr Singh has existed as a mere ornamental head of the government. The real power has remained with Mrs Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. This is indeed unfortunate.
But there are still some opportunities for Dr Singh to go in for some damage control, not as Prime Minister, but as Union Finance Minister. Can he bring the derailed economy back on track in the changed global order? He can, if he decides to do things with authority. If he is not allowed to so by his party, he should resign. A respectable exit bears more significance for a personality like Dr Singh than holding power by facing humiliation. Is our Prime Minister ready to do so, both for his image and for us all for whom he has become a non-performer and maybe an “underachiever” for some?
(The writer is a freelancer based in Halakura, Dhubri)