If any confirmation of India’s abysmal crisis of governance was required, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh supplied it on Wednesday. In an interaction with TV journalists on Wednesday morning, his answers to political and economic questions elided almost all the doubts raised in recent months on issues that plague the country—from corruption to dangers to the economy. His inability to steer the government and tame the more reckless of his colleagues is now undeniable, if it ever were in doubt since 2009.
In theory, in any parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is primus inter pares, or a first among equals, in his cabinet. In practice, in most such systems, he is clearly ahead of his colleagues. In India, today, that distance has been eliminated. In his answer to how he handled his former telecom minister A. Raja, the Prime Minister’s response was the by-now-usual refrain of coalition dharma: Raja was the choice of the leader of his party and Singh had little influence, beyond a point, to check this erring member of his council of ministers. That is what one can infer from what the Prime Minister said. But a close reading reveals something else: A minister is free to do as he pleases, and his misdemeanours can be washed away, all in the name of coalition dharma. This not only makes a mockery of the cabinet system, but also comes close to the liquidation of its essence.
It is true, as the Prime Minister said, that drastic action in a coalition has the potential to lead to frequent elections and that is not desirable. He made this sound like a Hobson’s choice. It was not. Minor ministerial indiscretions date back almost to the first Indian cabinet, but fraud on the Raja scale will certainly go down as a black event in the country’s annals. Sadly, the Prime Minister chose the option of “staying the course” instead of placing faith in his fellow citizens who would have given him more than a hearing at the hustings on his travails in managing a coalition.
What adds fuel to this terrible fire is the fact that Singh stoutly defended Raja. He claimed that it was difficult to assess the losses incurred by the government in allocation of the 2G spectrum case as at that time the right price by which to benchmark the allocation was not known. This will surely warm Raja’s heart for this is what he has been claiming as proof of his innocence. Now he has a prime ministerial certificate to that effect.
All this is in the present register. What about the future, especially the economic future of the country? Here again, the Prime Minister’s answers were purely political. In response to a question as to why economic reforms had been stalled, Singh argued that the proposed food security Bill, changes in the ICDS and the Right to Education were part of the economic agenda. Instead of answering the reasons for the missing reforms, he chose to blame the opposition for not letting Parliament function, in a lame attempt to link it with the absence of reforms. This is plainly misleading. It is well known that it is the government of the day that controls the legislative agenda and not the opposition. When was the last time that legislation linked to disinvestment, labour law reforms or one related to investment criteria in the insurance sector was introduced in Parliament? The facts speak for themselves.
If that were not enough, the Prime Minister conflated loss of revenue from the 2G spectrum allocation and subsidies on fertilizers, food and other items. For its brazenness, the statement is without compare. The throwaway prices at which 2G spectrum was allocated being dubbed “welfare” would be insulting to anyone’s intelligence. To equate this with subsidies is to turn what is clearly black into spotless white even as it is economic nonsense. This kind of reasoning can be expected from party spokespersons on evening TV, but for the Prime Minister to say so charts new depths.
Were these and other remarks that Singh made isolated responses by different individuals they could have been termed an attempt at being smart. But for the Prime Minister to say so betrays something else. Depending on one’s perspective, one could say it is loss of direction, dissimulation or plain tiredness. It does not augur well for the country’s governance. For the fact is that every new government that comes to power makes its predecessor look like an angel. In India, precedents matter and serve as excuses to behave recklessly. This will not only happen now but also provide an argument to do so for future governments.
It is this context in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remarks must be placed. If one surveys India’s political firmament, there would be hardly any individual who would come close to his intellect and probity. If a person like him has been reduced to making such distressing arguments, one can only say the future does not look very bright.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s answers: helplessness or smart politics? Tell us at email@example.com