Sunday, April 30, 2006

Dr. Singh – Time To Get Bold?

MJ Akabar in Asian Age (http://www.asianage.com/) goes soar on Dr. Manmohan Singh. He has reasons for that. For a person of Dr. Singh’s stature, the initial good will lasts longer. But it is not in infinite supply. At some point reality catches if the performance does not hold and Dr. Singh’s performance does not hold any more.

As like any democracy, it is okay for a politician not to worry as long as that politician brings vote. Not that in the end it results in any good or effective or lasting leadership; but at least such leadership carries for couple of election cycles – the typical life span of today’s elected leaders. Classic example in today’s Indian context is Lalu – he carried this voting winning pattern well over a decade. While it was lasting, it mattered least what his performance was. In fact the tragedy was that his governance did not have material impact on his electability for so long.

Indira Gandhi was another example. Extraordinarily strong leadership. Except for the outstanding achievements in foreign affairs (division of Pakistan giving rise to Bangladesh and securing India’s independence through highly charged Cold War); she had lukewarm domestic achievements. Those pale quite significantly in comparison to lasting achievements of her father – foundations for green revolution, basic infrastructure of heavy industry, sound grounding for higher education and establishment of scientific institutions, unity of the republic during crisis times and so on. But Indira was voter getter and hence it was okay if her domestic governance performance lagged behind from time to time.

That is not the case with Dr. Singh. It is sad to say (and BJP does have a point in that) but he can not get elected himself. When he contested one Loksabha election in Delhi, he lost by over 100 Thousand votes. May be next time when he contests an election, he may get elected. (Pranab Mukharjee lost election all along his life, except the last time when he won the Loksabha seat for the first time.) So at the end of the day, Dr. Singh’s record for pulling voted for himself is poor; leave alone pulling votes for others.

This leaves performance as the only salvage point for him to base his leadership. And as MJ Akabar and others are pointing, lately Dr. Singh is loosing ground. First and foremost, time has come to analyze how of much Indian Economic success can be attributed to Dr. Singh as indispensable contributor. It looks not much. True he started the original reforms and he is following the dictum of ‘do no harm’ so as market forces can play without any hindrance. But what is the true value addition NOW? Can it not be done by any other person? What does Dr. Singh bring to the table as far as Indian Economy goes which any other cannot bring? True, credibility is all that matters in Capitalism and hence with Dr. Singh at the helm, Capital trusts Indian Economy. But if we look carefully, we know that it is India’s demography, unique stage of Globalization, new technology and general wide spread acceptance within Indian society about entrepreneurship; all these things are essentially contributing to India’s stunning success.

To put it other way – will India’s Economic Growth suffer incurably if Dr. Singh goes away? Unless Left comes to power, there is broad consensus among Congress, BJP and many important regional parties that Economic Reforms must be pursued. As long as there is political stability, India has a reasonable chance to improve economy; it does not matter which block or which ruler governs. And we all know how much Dr. Singh can contribute to political stability. It is not he, but Sonia is the principal architect of the present government and there is no possibility that in near future Dr. Singh could in any realistic way be involved in the messy business of winning elections.
On the other hand, by opening up the possibility of job reservations in private sector; Dr. Singh is threatening the good momentum attained by India Economy. What a poor judgment and foolish pandering to vested political interestes which in the end will also not bring votes!

Beyond this lackluster domestic agenda, running foreign policy based on one single Nuclear Pact with USA (which by the way still looks no so certain); is not very forthcoming. With Pakistan, regardless of how much low respect one has towards President Musharraf; it is the Pakistani President who is setting the agenda and Dr. Singh is still in reactive mode. It is good that just because President Musharraf suggests some good ideas; Dr. Singh is not resisting to consider those. But where is the initiative? Who do we want to be in the driving seat? A tin pot dictator or a leader of giant democratic nation? Dr. Singh is still missing on this score.

With Nepal, India did show some sense of containing the foolish King over there. But one wonders, couldn’t India have been more forthcoming in siding with political parties of that country? Why not think of engaging strongly with those political parties and Maoists so that the emerging danger of extreme Left ideology in India does not see any violent example in a neighboring country? Granted that there is no connection between Nepali Maoists and Indian Naxalites; but the at any time when one comrade sees that there is a sensible and victorious way of achieving political power and goals rather than violence; we are doing service to bring more and more people in the political discourse. With that view, Indian diplomacy in Nepal has not been bad; but could have been more active, explicit and forceful.

In Sri Lanka, that country is broken due to still strong Tamil Tigers. Ever since India allowed the sacrifice of her Prime Minister in vain, India has lost her nerve and gumption in dealing with Tigers and in siding with Sri Lankan nationalists forces. To put it bluntly, as far as Sri Lankan Tamil conflict goes; Indian tiger has his tail in his legs and there is no signs of any strong response here. Dr. Singh prefers to continue the listless and defeatist attitude here rather than taking any pains in breaking new grounds.

Same goes with Bangladesh. The policy is much better than past mistakes and more accommodative. But still one fails to understand, when India does not know what do with her riches (foreign reserves and other nests she is building); why is India being not more generous with Bangladesh. Common on guys, go and spend some serious dough on the shores of Meghna. If the big brother remains miser we have less probability of trust getting built with smaller neighboring countries.

There is no point in having dreams of UN Security Council seat when India is not able to handle the serious next door issues which she must solve for the peace of her own people. The job of an Indian Prime Minister is to convey this message to over ambitious Indian Political Brass; get that Brass around to take innovative steps and address these serious foreign policy challenges in her own backyard. Imagine a day when India does not have any conflict and no mistrust with all these smaller neighboring countries of SAARC and everyone is busy in making money. BSE index would not stop at 20K then!

The question is what Dr. Singh is doing for that. In a sense, the next level of economic reform and renaissance of Indian society lies in these larger foreign policy challenges. The low hanging fruits of dismantling License Raj are going to end quite soon; or at least on the way so that broader sections of Indians can carry out that regardless of explicit political mandate. What India needs is the visionary leadership which does not rest on laurels of simple economic reforms, but articulates the bold political agenda of peace with neighbors and the domestic agenda which does not rest on the divisive ‘politics of reservations’. Dr. Singh is failing miserably in both these regards.

The last straw is killing of an Indian engineer by Taliban in Afghanistan. What we want is a forceful and strong reaction which has some concrete legs; not just empty bluster and press releases. How about committing 10 to 20K Indian soldiers in Afghanistan to defend Afghan democracy there? Giving $50 million to construct a building to house Afghan Democracy is one way; but unfortunately that building may be occupied by the regressive forces like Taliban if India does not act now. If Afghan Democracy needs Indian blood in addition to Indian Rupees, the time has come to consider such bold initiatives. Otherwise, all the loud protests by India will be meaningless, cowardly India will stop sending engineers to that place and the world will see one more occasion when India fails to pass the test of global leadership. If Dr. Singh gets bold, he will flex all the might of India State in this case to ensure that fundamentalist regime does not come again in India’s neighborhood. Pakistan and Iran will surely make the noise. But let us face those noises now rather than beholden to these terrorists. And if Dr. Singh wants to be more creative, he can get all he wants as far as the Nuclear Pact with USA goes when he tells Uncle Sam that Mahar Regiment will relive over reached American Army in Afghanistan. If Pres. Bush is effectively hinting all along for the involvement of the million strong Indian Army, let the ball roll and get the best deal out of that. Why hesitate? Dr. Singh, here is your chance to claim Indira’s bold heritage and achieve the lasting advantage to India.

Umesh Patil
San Jose, CA 95111
April 30, 2006.

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