Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Crony politics and weak leadership

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 1, 2012)


Something bad is happening to the Great Indian Dream. Fewer people now than a year ago are talking of the country as the next economic super-power. It may be premature to write an obituary, but the temptation is there. Many experts believe that the country’s economy has slipped into a coma. Can it revive? And, soon?
The bad news for India is coming thick and fast. Standard & Poor has downgraded the rating for the country’s economy from “stable” to “negative”, Moody’s has called the UPA Government a “drag” on the economy, the International Monetary Fund has expressed strong negative sentiments, foreign investors are jittery with the constant shifts in fiscal and taxation policies, Indian businessmen are increasingly looking offshore to expand their businesses because they believe doing business in India is getting increasingly “difficult”.
In the midst of all this, the economy continues to falter. Annual growth has been pegged down at a modest seven per cent from the earlier expectation of eight to nine per cent; inflation at close to seven per cent remains a constant source of concern; fiscal deficit is unlikely to be contained at the projected 5.1 per cent of the GDP; and subsidy bill continues to soar (with food subsidy alone expected to be at an annual two lakh crore rupees). Yet, the Manmohan Singh Government continues to be profligate, allotting large funds for wasteful schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the National Food Security Act. Worse, due to the rank mismanagement, the Government has failed to get its allies and the Opposition on board on crucial issues such as foreign direct investment and goods and service tax.
Why have we come to such a pass? The Government is led by an ‘economist’ Prime Minister who is credited with unleashing fiscal reform in the early nineties as Finance Minister; the incumbent Union Minister for Finance is the Cabinet’s senior-most and most experienced hand with a sound understanding of economic matters; the Prime Minister and his Government utilise the services of economic advisers that have tremendous experience and credentials; the Planning Commission is headed by a Deputy Chairman who too is a well-established economic mind and who almost became the Finance Minister. Still, things are going wrong. Why?
Clearly, for an answer, we have to look beyond the numbers and to politics and leadership. If power flows from the barrel of a gun, the gun that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has is malfunctioning. Or it has run out of ammunition. Or the gun is in reality a toy-gun which is every now and then used to scare the Opposition and the errant partners of the UPA. But the gun does not scare anybody anymore. What is scary is the dizzying speed at which the Government is losing direction and purpose and taking the country down. The UPA regime will not last forever; it will probably be voted out in the next election. But what will last for a long while is the messy legacy that it will leave behind to be cleaned up by its successor. The Government that comes in next will begin on a grim note, happy though it will be at assuming power.
The symptoms are many, but the disease in one: A weak leadership. American politician Stewart Udall had said, “We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.” In the case of Mr Manmohan Singh, there is no scope of confusion. He neither has power nor greatness. He is not the first Prime Minister to faces crises. Jawaharlal Nehru was constantly badgered by his critics within and outside the Government. But he dealt with them firmly. What eventually did him in was the disastrous war with China.
Mrs Indira Gandhi constantly battled challenges to her leadership and triumphed. She even split the Congress to assert her leadership, took bold political decisions and never ducked under pressure. Defying international pressure, she presided over the country’s first nuclear test, won the war with Pakistan in 1971 and helped liberate Bangladesh. She made a come-back from political wilderness in 1980 and paid with her life for clearing the Golden Temple of militants. By sheer leadership skills and moral stature, Atal Bihari Vajpayee deftly managed the country’s first truly coalitional Government, without allowing frictions to come in the way of economic growth.
Mr Singh is the weakest Prime Minister that we have had. Even Mr Deve Gowda and Mr IK Gujral took important decisions despite being fettered by the limited political space they commanded. As a short-term Prime Minister whose tenure was at the mercy of the Congress, Chandra Shekhar displayed rare leadership quality and had the courage to call the Congress’s bluff. He preferred to step down rather than be that party’s puppet. Narasimha Rao, who began with a minority Government, kicked off economic reform, brought peace to terror-struck Punjab and demonstrated that it is possible for a Congress leader to govern the country without enjoying the patronage of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
So, what ails Mr Manmohan Singh? Like his mentor Narasimha Rao, Mr Singh is hobbled by the loyalists of the Congress’s first family, but, unlike Rao, he has succumbed to them. If Mr Singh no longer is his own man, how can we expect him to effectively lead the country? A weak leader does not possess the moral authority to impose decisions on others. His colleagues refuse to listen to him, and even occasionally ridicule him. Policy decisions are arrived at and soon enough disbanded or deferred because the leader does not have the strength to stand by them. Because the leader is directionless, the people he leads too become that or set of in various different directions. Once such a stage is reached — as it has now — there is no turning back.
It can be argued that the Prime Minister is not all that weak and lacking in self-esteem. Did he not show spine when he threatened to resign if the India-US civil nuclear deal was not approved by his party and Parliament? Did the Congress not win the 2009 Lok Sabha election by projecting him as the prime ministerial candidate? But what happened to that ‘self-esteem’ and strength when he was compelled to continue with A Raja in the Cabinet even after the latter was found deeply involved in the 2G Spectrum scam? Or when a junior Minister of State defied his directive to visit the site of an accident? Or when he had to give that same defiant Minister a Cabinet rank later?
A weak Prime Minister has given rise to stronger State-level leaders who have suddenly discovered that they can push their agenda more forcefully with the Union Government. There’s nothing wrong in having powerful Chief Ministers, but it’s certainly a matter of concern if we have a weak Union due to a supine Prime Minister. Mr Singh has had eight years as Prime Minister to develop from a drab bureaucrat to a striking politician. If he has failed in that task, it’s probably because he simply does not have it in him. Lal Bahadur Shastri had asserted his leadership in a fraction of the period that Mr Singh has had at his disposal.
But there is another equally plausible reason: Mr Singh is a beneficiary of ‘crony politics’. Like crony capitalism that feeds on state patronage to generate personal wealth and in the process creates little for society that is long-lasting, crony politics involve favours extended to light-weight politicians by established family names. Such light-weights  leave no positive legacy behind. Everyone, for instance, knows that Mr Singh is the Prime Minister because of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s munificence and not because he won the position. He is a beneficiary of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s largesse. How can he then assert his leadership?

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