Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is facing criticism not just from the political opposition — which is always ready to give him a mouthful — but also from around the world. The barrage of uncharitable monikers comes, mainly, from the foreign media — from Time’s ‘underachiever’ cover story to The Independent’s ‘Sonia’s poodle’ tag. Foreign businesses and investors have also been critical of Singh’s weak leadership and his inability to push reforms.
Singh’s major problem stems from the fact that he has had no political legitimacy since he was appointed — not elected — as prime minister in 2004. The Congress party president Sonia Gandhi had ‘sacrificed’ her own ambitions and chosen the docile Singh as prime minister because he would be easy to control. Without a political base, Singh has been privately mocked by senior Congress party figures who do not agree with his policies.
Singh’s first term in office was characterised by confrontation with the Leftist parties, which blocked many of his economic initiatives. His second term has been characterised by a series of high-profile scams and scandals that very nearly brought down his government.
Ironically, the same middle class that had applauded his ‘bold stand’ against the Leftist parties on the nuclear deal with the US in his first term, is now turning against him. This is reflected in the plethora of criticism and jokes about his leadership in the Indian media.
Singh, a technocrat and brilliant economist, also faces the ‘new kid on the Congress block’, Rahul Gandhi, whom mother Sonia wants to see ascending the prime minister’s throne. Rahul has, so far, not made any impact on the Indian political scene. The advent of the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty also disgusts millions of educated and middle-class Indians who ask if a nation of 1.2 billion, with brilliant mathematicians, scientists, thinkers, strategists and others, cannot produce a strong nation-building leader, and must rely only on one family to provide leadership.
Indeed, the rich and politically powerful Indian diaspora in the US believes that the cancer of sycophancy is the root cause of the Congress party’s decay. But the Congress blames its allies in the coalition government for blocking major reforms aimed at opening up the economy to much-needed foreign investment, and removing obstacles to growth such as anachronistic infrastructure, endemic corruption and red tape.
Insiders say that Singh, who turns 80 this year, did not get much support from former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. Now India’s 13th president, Mukherjee is believed to have left the finance ministry without resolving many issues of national importance. Singh and Mukherjee reportedly also had major differences on the economy: Singh wanted to see India integrated in the global economy while Mukherjee, a party troubleshooter, favoured populist policies that would play well domestically.
With India’s economic growth falling to a near three-year low and its current account deficit the highest since 1980, the government has projected a budget deficit of 5.9 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government’s backtracking late last year from its plans to open up the $450 billion (Dh1.65 trillion) supermarket sector to foreign retail chains such as Wal-Mart, after a political backlash — including from within the coalition— alarmed the foreign business fraternity.
Singh, once the darling of foreign politicians and foreign investors, increasingly finds this constituency of admirers turning their backs on him. India’s foreign policy profile has also suffered because of weak leadership. There is criticism, for example, of Singh’s appeasement of Pakistan, which has inflamed tempers in India and abroad. While admitting that peace with Pakistan is important, Indian public opinion is against India bending backwards. Many believe India is making a strategic mistake. The right strategy would be to give only if India gets something in return.
Singh, who looks pale, exhausted and at his wits’ end, knows he will not become prime minister again. But he deserves an honourable exit.
Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.