India’s Decade of Decay

Read Time:4 Minute, 17 Second DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been in office since 2004,
recently held what was only the second press conference of his current five-year
term, which is rapidly approaching an inglorious end. Betraying his yearning for
approval, Singh told the assembled journalists that he hoped that history would
judge his tenure more kindly than his political adversaries do.

That outcome seems unlikely, at best. On the contrary, Singh’s once-great Congress
party is now at a political impasse, from which it can escape only if it frees
itself from its destructive dynastic leadership. After more than a half-century in
government – much of India’s modern life as an independent country – the era of
Congress dominance appears to be over.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the party’s decline occurred in December, when it
suffered crushing defeats in four key state-assembly elections. In Rajasthan,
Congress won only 21 seats, while India’s second-largest political force, the
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won 162. This represents a massive shift from the 2008
election, when Congress gained 96 seats, compared to the BJP’s 78.

Likewise, in Delhi, Congress was reduced to just eight of 70 seats after 15 years in
power, with even Sheila Dikshit, Delhi’s longest-serving Chief Minister, losing her
seat to a political newcomer. Only in the small northeastern state of Mizoram did
Congress retain its majority.

This was an unprecedented rout – and does not bode well for Congress in the upcoming
national elections. To see why – and to determine whether the party can stem its own
decay – requires understanding what has happened since Congress regained national
leadership from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2004.

As the largest party, Congress became the hub of the newly established United
Progressive Alliance (UPA). But, in a surprise move, the party’s leader, Sonia
Gandhi, declined to become Prime Minister, naming Singh – an academic and civil
servant, with no electoral experience – as the UPA’s choice. After nearly 40 days of
melodrama, Singh was finally sworn in, though he had not won voter support directly
in any constituency.

This unnatural arrangement instantly earned acid comments. As one observer astutely
remarked, “Where there is authority, there is no ability; but where there is some
ability, there is no authority.” Despite Singh’s academic abilities, his potential
as India’s top politician was severely limited. Over time, it became apparent that
Singh’s government was worse than ineffective; it was doomed to fail, because
Singh’s strengths lie in serving as an obedient and capable subordinate, not as an
agenda-setting leader who acts decisively.

Consider his role in managing India’s economic transformation when he was the
country’s finance minister in the early 1990’s – an effort that his supporters have
often cited as an example of his vision and ability. Last year, former External
Affairs Minister Natwar Singh disclosed that it was actually then-Prime Minister
Narasimha Rao, a shrewd and experienced Congress veteran, who pushed India’s
economic reform and restructuring. Singh, reluctant to do what was needed, would
have achieved very little had Rao not provided a platform – and the needed political
support – to pursue the government’s agenda. Early on, there were intimations that
Singh should neither be underestimated as a political manipulator, nor overestimated
as an effective economic manager.

But Singh’s ineptitude as a leader was already apparent before the revelation of
Rao’s role. Not only has economic reform come to a virtual standstill since he took
office, but he has also acquiesced to all of Gandhi’s demands, legitimate or

As a result, governance, and thus the economy, has been deteriorating. India has
been taken hostage by an extra-constitutional body composed of NGOs, brought
together under the National Advisory Council, which is chaired by Gandhi. With the
cabinet having become superfluous, the NAC’s decrees – including half-baked ideas
inspired by the European welfare state – became policy.

As a result, Singh has presided over a sharp economic slowdown and soaring prices,
especially for food. Meanwhile, political scandals, financial scams, and other
criminal activities have proliferated under Congress rule since 2004. The UPA regime
has effectively looted the country, and rampant corruption and a lack of
accountability have decimated its leading party’s credibility.

Through all of this, the supposedly economically literate Singh was little more than
a silent spectator, offering only denials of responsibility or trite remarks from
the perspective of a political outsider. And, while the damage that he has caused to
Congress is for the party to solve, the damage that his aloofness has caused to the
institution of Prime Minister is a problem for all Indians.

Manmohan Singh’s decade of disastrous leadership has been characterized by weakness
and decay. India will suffer the consequences for years to come. Far from
vindicating him, historians will know exactly whom to blame.

Jaswant Singh, a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister, and defense
minister, is the author of Jinnah: India – Partition – Independence and India at
Risk: Mistakes, Misconceptions and Misadventures of Security Policy.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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