The reluctant PM

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Dr Singh needs to take the wheel

I am probably among the very few who still have faith in the capability of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take India out of the economic morass in which it is stuck. I do not like his World Bank-guided model. Yet he has given the country a growth rate of 8 to 9 per cent in a decade and more than doubled the growth rate of 3.5 per cent, our cumulative performance since independence in August 1947.

True, the Prime Minister has come a long way from his report on South-South Cooperation, a definitive work which reflected a left-of-centre approach, something akin to the socialist pattern of society that Jawaharlal Nehru had enunciated. But Manmohan Singh defends his reforms as pragmatic, suited to India’s genius. The end result has been a huge distance between the rich and the poor. He now talks of “inclusive growth” but he has been stuck there for a long time, although he has sold the idea to his admiring followers in the West. To President Barrack Obama, he is still a “guru.”

Whether Manmohan Singh would succeed giving a new direction to India’s economy is yet to be seen. However, there are difficulties in his way. His credibility to set things right has been eroded. Investors from abroad and from within the country are demanding their pound of flesh. Inflation is high and fiscal deficit looks unbridgeable. People are too used to subsidies and they would not take a cut lightly.

On the other hand, one major impediment has lessened. Congress president Sonia Gandhi who was not allowing certain reforms has withdrawn her objection to them. Her backseat driving has cost Manmohan Singh dearly. He has lost the image of purity he once enjoyed. There is the general belief that he connived at the various scams. That he knew about the mobiles (2G spectrum) corruption running into hundreds of crores and did not interfere to stop it is taken for granted.

The resignation by Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar from the chairmanship of the Group of Ministers looking into the 2G scandal is a healthy development. No report emanating from him would have been considered fair and untainted. Such resignations, probably suggested, and the exit of Pranab Mukherjee who could not have done worse than he did as finance minister, give more leeway to Manmohan Singh. The only thing expected from him is to lead the process of recovery, made more difficult because of monsoon’s failure in some parts of the country. Also Sonia Gandhi is still overlooking his shoulders.

Since he would be grappling with many problems, he would expect support and understanding from his own party, the allies in the coalition the Congress leads and even the BJP in the opposition. The latter has offered help on certain reforms but its contention is that the Congress party is itself divided over some of the steps contemplated. This was the BJP’s position even in the budget session of parliament but the Congress was then not prepared to bite the bullet.

The real problem that Manmohan Singh faces is the government’s ally, Trinamool Congress headed by mercurial Mamata Banerjee. She, in fact, humiliated the prime minister by naming him as a candidate for the office of the President of India. After meeting Sonia Gandhi, she and the other ally of the government, Mulayam Singh of Samajwadi Party from UP, proposed his name kicking Manmohan Singh upstairs. Sonia Gandhi should have retorted immediately to the suggestion and issued a statement saying there was no question of changing Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. She allowed the confusion to prevail for 24 hours, humiliating Manmohan Singh further.

I do not know why the prime minister is saying every now and then that he is willing to vacate his place for Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s son. Manmohan Singh should know by this time, having been in the Congress for 25 years, that whenever Sonia Gandhi decides, she would not even ask him why she is putting her son in his place. At present, Rahul’s image is down because of the battering of the Congress in Bihar and UP, the two states where he campaigned during the assembly elections. He would need some time to refurbish his appeal.

Besides giving direction to the matters of economy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should show that he is really in command of the country. He should have publicly asked for a report on the killing of ‘Naxalites’ who the human rights activists allege were innocent villagers. In fact, he should have ordered a judicial inquiry straightaway to verify the facts because the police has the reputation of being gun crazy. The wobbling home minister P Chidambaram is not known for quick decision.

Coming to the issue of prisoners in India and Pakistan, the prime minister should have taken the matter in his own hands when Pakistan released Surjeet Singh and not Sarabjit Singh, as was announced earlier. Many television channels from Pakistan informed me about Sarabjit’s release and got my reaction. Apparently, the hardliners made Islamabad change its decision. The prime minister should have taken up the matter at his level because the relationship between the two countries is getting affected by the “mistaken identity”, if it was so.

One thing that comes out clearly from the recent confusion is that prisoners on both sides are considered mere pawns on a chessboard and are kept in jail beyond the tenure of the sentence to play the opportunistic game. Surjeet Singh who has been released spent nearly 10 years more because that is the practice. No one bothers on both sides about human suffering. No one is accountable and nobody is taken to task for detaining prisoners illegally.

In India, there are examples where its own prisoners are in jail even if they have served their sentence. For example, I would like to know the fate of Sikh prisoners languishing in jail since 1984. Had the government shown agility, the prisoners would have been released by this time.

Economic reforms may be important, but more important is the people’s feeling that the government is just and cares for them. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can begin from this note.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.