It was really a no contest till recently. The late V.P. Singh was the undisputed winner of this trophy. He also remains the classic example of a middle class hero who became a middle class villain. Till he became the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh was the anti-corruption crusader and messiah who rode on the infamy of the Bofors scam. Of course, Indians soon realised that pious crusaders do not always become good leaders. Mercifully, his tenure did not last long enough for V.P. Singh to inflict irreparable damage to India.
I used the words “till recently” because there was some lingering, forlorn hope that the current Prime Minister would at least do something that would enable V.P. Singh to retain the crown. But then, forlorn hopes always remain hopeless. I realised this when I read newspaper stories about how a Supreme Court Bench has yet again criticised the PMO. This time, the rap on the knuckles is because the Prime Minister has failed to convene a meeting of the Cauvery River Authority despite reminders. Allow me to use the words of the Bench: “What do you mean by this? It is shocking that you require the consent of all the states even for a date of a meeting? Is the PM to see his convenience or the convenience of the members? It is surprising that the PMO is asking the convenience of everybody before fixing the meeting.” Just imagine. The Prime Minister is the head of the Cauvery River Authority set up to tackle the often ugly dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery waters. What conclusion can you draw from the fact that he is not able to set up a meeting with some chief ministers? Either he is truly helpless and powerless, or he is indifferent and callous. Either ways, it bodes ill for India.
This incident and the rap on the knuckles by the Supreme Court is not front page news. Nor will it lead our television anchors to froth at the mouth. Yet, in a small but very significant way, it reflects the disappointment and disaster that Dr. Manmohan Singh has been. In 2009, he was a true blue middle class hero because the Congress won virtually all urban seats in the Lok Sabha elections, including seven out of seven in Delhi. Today, that halo has been torn to shreds. Of course, the middle class Indian is very fickle and unreliable. And later historians might have more charitable things to say about the tenure of Manmohan Singh. The more charitable may say that Indians expected too much from him and hence the disappointment and anger.
But for me, there are some crucial reasons why Dr. Manmohan Singh has become the worst Prime Minister India has ever had.
The most important reason is that he has presided over an insidious process that has transformed India into a total banana republic. Nothing has been left untouched in this era of loot and plunder; nothing is sacrosanct. Just a few examples will suffice, though the tales of crony capitalism written in his tenure would fill up entire books. BSNL and Air India have been systematically run to the ground and destroyed through incomprehensible policies and decisions. I am not saying that the Prime Minister personally took the conspiracy call to do this. That is childish. But the fact is that private sector players have immensely benefited from the troubles of these two public sector giants. And I won’t be surprised if – as the cacophony over Air India gathers momentum – the two are eventually “privatised” at throwaway prices, their assets and value eroded deliberately. It is in this era of Dr. Manmohan Singh that India has thrown up more dollar billionaires than even China. It is during his tenure that crony capitalism has become de facto policy. Let me quote a few lines from the book Breakout Nations written by Ruchir Sharma to illustrate what has happened under Dr Singh: “Crony capitalism is a cancer that undermines competition and slows economic growth. That is why the United States confronted the problem and moved to take down the robber barons... The Dow index of the top thirty US industrial companies is in constant flux and, on average, replaces half its members every fifteen years. India’s market used to generate heavy turnover too, but in late 2011, twenty seven – 90 percent – of the top thirty companies tracked by the benchmark Sensex index were holdovers 2006. Back in 2006, the comparable figure was just 68 percent... Nine out of the top ten Indian billionaires on the Forbes 2010 are holdovers from the 2006 list, while the 2006 list had only five holdovers. As of today, many of India’s super rich still inspire national pride, not resentment, and they can travel the country with no fear for their safety; but this genial state of affairs can change quickly.” In effect, India has become a true banana republic where the ruling religion is crony capitalism and the ruling chant is scam. This is astonishing because the UPA regime never fails to remind all of us that its heart beats genuinely and passionately for the aam aadmi.
Just one more example to conclude this observation. You might recall how the then Governor of Andhra Pradesh and veteran Congress leader N.D. Tiwari was seen frolicking with nubile nymphets. Do you know how this scandalous footage found its way into the media? The brothel owner who allegedly supplied the girls to Tiwari wanted revenge. Why? Because N.D. Tiwari had not kept his promise of getting a few mining licenses for her! Mera Bharat Mahan!
The second reason why Dr. Singh has been such a monumental failure is his inability or unwillingness or both to move even an inch ahead on administrative reforms. Back in 2004 when he was appointed Prime Minister, Dr. Singh had singled out administrative reforms as his most important priority. And why not? Governance in India is in an appalling state because the entire administrative framework has virtually collapsed. There is simply no accountability and both the tehsildar and the secretary level IAS officer treat the citizens as subjects to be lorded over. Our sister publication The Sunday Indian has done a story on how the IAS lobby has stolen the country. One would have thought that Dr. Singh would be well acquainted with the perils of Indian bureaucracy since he was himself a bureaucrat for most of his adult and working life. But in the last eight years, he has not lifted a finger to make even small, cosmetic changes to India’s rotting steel frame. The consequence has been brutal and devastating: the quality of governance is at an all time low and India’s record in delivering health, education and sanitation is actually worse than ever before. He has been unable or unwilling to even prevent bureaucrats holding sensitive posts to retire and take plum private sector assignments in a brazen defiance of norms and law.
The third and most devastating failure – in fact, the key reason behind all other failures – has been his inability or unwillingness or both, to display some spine. So pathetic has been his track record in this regard that his personal reputation as a man of integrity has become a joke. The charitable would say that our current regime of coalition politics does not allow a Prime Minister all the power that he should have because allies dictate terms. True. In the NDA regime, Suresh Prabhu was widely acknowledged as a brilliant Power Minister. Yet, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was helpless when Shiv Sena decided that Suresh Prabhu must be sacked. Despite such compulsions, Vajpayee had a clear run this far and no further approach. And even troublesome allies knew that and respected his authority. Can anyone say that about Dr. Singh? The other charitable thing we say about him is that real power resides with Sonia Gandhi and Dr. Singh is actually doing the best he can of a difficult job. That is bunkum. Sonia Gandhi is a very intelligent and astute politician. There is no way she would have asked for the head of Dr. Singh if he had put his foot down on at least some crucial issues. It is not Sonia Gandhi who has made Dr. Singh a puppet; it is Dr. Singh who has become a puppet and eventually and inevitably the lamest of lame ducks.
Let’s all anxiously wait for 2014 for this agony to be over. It is India’s misfortune that 2014 still looks very, very far away.