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Manmohan Singh leaves legacy of disappointments

Announcing his retirement, Indian PM will leave India worse off

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • January 8, 2014
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Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement in his New Year press conference that he would retire at the end of his second term – whether his United Progressive Alliance win or lose May elections – surprised nobody.

Singh sheepishly said that history would be more kind to him than his political opponents and the media, which have in recent years delighted in framing India’s 13th prime minister as a man of inaction and underachievement. 

It is a moot point as to which aspects of his 10-year leadership, and five years as finance minister in the 1990s, Singh is banking on to claim his place in history. The Oxford-educated economist, former United Nations official and economic advisor to previous governments will be best remembered for dismantling economic controls installed by Jawaharlal Nehru after independence in 1947 up until Indira Gandhi’s premiership into the late 1970s. Singh was the man that demolished “License Raj,” the notorious red tape around India’s previously planned economy.

Opening the economy to Western and Japanese capital investment – according to some a diktat of the International Monetary Fund – helped to create India’s booming IT and telecoms sectors. But there was no accompanying safety net for the poor and marginalized.

After initial annual growth rates of eight percent in his early years, prompting glowing assessments at home and abroad, Singh suffered the mortification of seeing GDP growth slide to below five percent in the past two years as the economy – no longer insulated from the turmoil of Wall Street – withered in the Western financial meltdown.

In one fell swoop Singh went from darling of finance and industry to a pariah: Two years after Newsweek called him “the leader other leaders love,” TIME pictured India’s incumbent on its July 2012 cover with the tagline “the underachiever”. Coupled with a spate of corruption scandals, Singh’s premiership and Congress Party suffered.

The Congress Party waged an internal struggle within the coalition government in its attempts – too often half-hearted – to help its main support base: the poor.

There have been new initiatives like the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Scheme which gives 100 days paid work to landless, unemployed rural poor and the Right to Food Act, promising heavily subsidized rice and wheat to roughly two-thirds of the population below the poverty line. While these policies were successes, they were all formulated by the National Advisory Council, set up by Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Singh could hardly be called the architect.

His leadership has also been found wanting when it comes to protecting minorities including Dalits, Christians and tribal groups; he admitted as much in his parting statement.

Many of the minorities' problems have been directly related to inaction by local governments responsible for law and order. Violence against Christians and Muslims continued unabated as the government has failed to enact the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill, mainly due to opposition from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even so, Singh’s cabinet showed a shameful lack of courage when it came to getting it passed through parliament.

His 10 years leading the government have also seen scant progress on tensions in Kashmir. Singh has offered no political solution to heal the deep wounds and emotional cleavage outside of empty rhetoric that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

The government has also failed miserably in foreign relations and internal security. The current diplomatic crisis with the US over the case of envoy Devyani Khobragade and her allegedly underpaid maid has shown a ham-fistedness that has become all to common in New Delhi. Dialogue has been bypassed. Meanwhile, relations with Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been at their lowest for years.

The military has been buttressed with new rockets and missiles, aircraft carriers and warplanes, but incursions by Pakistan to the west and China along the northern lines of control have exposed cracks in India's armor.

Singh will, finally, have to answer the charge that it was under his watch that religious fundamentalism consolidated further and grew, creating the ground on which Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, could emerge as a prime ministerial candidate of the BJP despite claims he accommodated riots that left 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead in 2002.

Facing this main challenger in May, Congress can no longer be sure it retains the trust of the poor, Dalits, tribals and other minorities which have backed the party at the ballot box over so many years.

It means bad news not just for Congress but for Indian secularism, the sole security guarantee for religious minorities, and others.

This will be Singh’s lasting legacy.

John Dayal is general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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