If only the Prime Minister and his boss, Sonia Gandhi, had been as concerned about criticism in the Indian media as they so clearly are about criticism in the western media Dr. Manmohan Singh may have pulled up his socks long ago. In any case what he needs to worry about now is what he can do to rectify things by getting his government to actually start working instead of just dawdling along till 2014
Tavleen Singh (on the spot) It was a few days before Time magazine called our Prime Minister an ‘underachiever’ on its cover and a British newspaper called him Sonia Gandhi’s ‘poodle’ that I met a Congress Party friend for coffee. We met in his home in Delhi for an ‘off-the-record’ chat about political things and during the course of this chat I gleaned from my friend that there was a general impression within the party, and the government, that the Prime Minister needed to assert himself much more. A few days later, by coincidence, I ran into someone believed to be close to the Congress president and, to my surprise, heard similar sort of comments about the Prime Minister’s timidity. As for the Indian media it has gone on and on about Dr. Manmohan Singh’s underachieving ways almost since he got reappointed to his job by the Congress president in 2009. So why is the Congress Party so sensitive about articles in the western media that are so obviously only stating the obvious? If you are thinking, as you read this, that this is because Sonia Gandhi, being of European birth, is more sensitive to what is said about her in foreign lands you would be wrong. From the time that I have been a political reporter I have found myself puzzled by the Congress Party’s prickliness when it comes to criticism in the western press. Indira Gandhi was so obsessed with what was being said about her by foreign journalists that there are political analysts who believe that she lifted the Emergency only because she was sick of being called a dictator by the western press. There is no way that I can confirm this but what I can confirm from personal observation is that she gave interviews readily to visiting journalists from the west and almost never to Indian journalists. What I can also confirm is that in the brief months that she was out of power, between the summer of 1977 and the end of 1979, she sought out foreign correspondents to complain about the Janata Party government. I knew some of them and they were both overwhelmed and puzzled about why this happened. While we can put this down to nothing more than the awe of white-skinned foreigners that many Indians have what is most puzzling is the ambivalent manner in which Dr. Manmohan Singh’s cabinet colleagues and spokesmen of the Congress Party have reacted lately to foreign criticism. It should not matter at all if an American magazine and a British newspaper are saying rude things about the Prime Minister but what should matter is what international rating agencies, like Standard & Poor’s, are saying about India’s gloomy investment climate and what foreign investors are saying with their feet. So why is there such a brouhaha about what foreign journalists are saying and an almost deliberate attempt to ignore more significant criticism? It could be because the Congress Party’s spokesmen understand politics better than they understand economics. It could be a good moment for them to be given an economics lesson or two. So here goes.Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) went down to $3.5 billion in April and May this year recording a drop of 38% compared to the same months last year. This is not good. There are leftist politicians and economists who say that India does not need foreign investment and that there is enough money in the country to build the roads, ports, power stations and airports we so desperately need. This is not true. If the Indian economy was growing at 9.5% as it was in boom times, we might have been able to raise the money from domestic sources but now that growth rates have dropped by nearly half, there simply is not enough money around. Besides, the leftists appear to have forgotten that it was FDI that helped build China’s infrastructure which is not just fifth years ahead of our own but modern by the standards of developed western countries. One of my enduring memories of China is the train ride I took from Tianjin to Beijing two years ago. We traveled at more than 300 kilometres an hour and Tianjin’s railway station, as I have written before in this column, was better than most Indian airports. If Dr. Manmohan Singh is being called an underachiever it is because when he became prime minister for the second time, without the deleterious support of the CPM (Communist Party Marxist), there had been hope that he would speed up the process of economic change. In his first term as prime minister the economic reforms he started as Finance Minister, in the nineties, had stalled completely and this was blamed on his Marxist allies. It is worth remembering that they interfered so constantly in economic policy that it sometimes seemed as if Prakash Karat was India’s Finance Minister. So nothing better could have happened to the United Progressive Alliance than for the Marxists to be decimated in the 2009 general election in their bastion, West Bengal. But, instead of being enthused by this Dr. Manmohan Singh appeared to go into semi-retirement. Not only did he say nothing when his own ministers defied him openly but he timidly accepted every new policy change that came from Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet, the National Advisory Council (NAC). The NAC stepped firmly into the leftist space vacated by the communists and our former Finance Minister (and future President) Shri Pranab Mukherji opened the purse strings as wide as possible to spend on the massive welfare schemes that the NAC devised in the name of the poor. The Prime Minister could have intervened but chose not to and instead started to behave so much like a man in semi-retirement that Mamata Bannerji may have had a point when she suggested that he move to Rashtrapati Bhawan. If only the Prime Minister and his boss, Sonia Gandhi, had been as concerned about criticism in the Indian media as they so clearly are about criticism in the western media Dr. Manmohan Singh may have pulled up his socks long ago. In any case what he needs to worry about now is what he can do to rectify things by getting his government to actually start working instead of just dawdling along till 2014. It is not his image in the western media that he should be worrying about so much as his image in the eyes of India’s voters. For the moment it looks very, very bad.
(Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter@tavleen_singh)