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Manmohan Singh's first four months as India's prime minister

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-03

NEW DELHI - Not long ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summoned his 28 Cabinet Ministers and 10 Ministers of State with Independent Portfolios to a conference room in South Block, the imposing sandstone edifice that houses his office. No sooner had the officials been seated than Mr T. K. A. Nair, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, went around the room handing sealed envelopes to each minister. Each envelope had the recipient's name neatly typed on it.

"Please read before we start our meeting," Dr Singh told the gathering, in his soft voice.

The high-ceilinged room resonated with the ripping of envelopes being opened. Inside each packet was a personal letter to the ministers, who represented the Congress-led coalition of 14 political parties that rules India under the banner of the United Progressive Alliance.

Each letter was identical in its contents. The ministers were told to restrict their public comments only to their designated portfolios. They were told not to speak excessively to the media. They were told to refrain from criticising each other in public. They were told that corruption in any form would not be tolerated. They were told that as public servants they must be accessible to their constituencies. They were told that their personal life styles mustn't be ostentatious. They were told that every public official must conspicuously attend to the business of projecting a wholesome image of good governance, especially for foreign audiences.

"Are we in agreement?" the Prime Minister asked.

Everyone nodded.

But in private comments later, many ministers were furious. They thought that the 72-year-old Prime Minister had no business lecturing them on ethics and behaviour. After all, most of the ministers had significantly more political experience and personal popularity than Dr Singh, whose own appointment was made possible only after the Italian-born Congress Party chief, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, declined the Prime Minister's job. The ministers wondered if Dr Singh's letter was, in effect, a missive composed by the stern Mrs Gandhi, who's known for her rectitude and for her concern that corruption in government is pervasive.

Whether or not Mrs Gandhi composed that letter, she was surely consulted by Prime Minister Singh before it was handed out. Nearly four months after the UPA government took office after the election rout last May of the previous National Democratic Alliance administration - which was led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - it's clear that nothing gets done, or promulgated, in India's federal government without Mrs Gandhi's acquiescence.

As UPA head, she holds Cabinet rank; she is also a member of the Lok Sabha, the 545-member Lower House of parliament. Most significantly, Mrs Gandhi is the single most popular politician in India. She draws huge crowds wherever she goes around this country of 1.1 billion people scattered through 29 states and seven federal territories; the Prime Minister is usually seen only at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and at think-tank seminars.

Mrs Gandhi's enormous political power, and Dr Singh's political inexperience - he's only an appointed member of the mostly toothless Rajya Sabha, the 250-member Upper House of Parliament, although he served as Finance Minister a decade ago in the Congress administration of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao - has created an unprecedented situation in post-Independence India.

This is how a senior Cabinet minister puts it: "The head of a political coalition, in this case Mrs Gandhi, rules the country; and a former bureaucrat, Dr Singh, heads the central government - which means that he's in charge of governance."

That seems just fine with the Prime Minister. He's uncomfortable with big audiences. He's still recovering from a heart bypass operation some years ago. His blood pressure is reported to be high. While his reputation is that of a mild-mannered scholar, his temper often flares at private meetings. And despite the general perception that he's totally committed to free enterprise, his personal record includes a stint more than a decade ago as Secretary General of the Geneva-based South Commission, a determinedly left-wing organisation started by the late President Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania, whose admiration of Karl Marx was only exceeded by his reverence of Vladimir I. Lenin.

Dr Singh's priorities thus far have focused on trimming India's bloated bureaucracy of more than a million federal civil servants, a task primarily entrusted to the Cabinet Secretary, Mr B. K. Chaturvedi. Already, many senior bureaucrats are sending their resumes around. Mr Rajiv Luthra, who heads one of the best known law firms in this capital city, says that each month he gets at least a dozen phone calls and applications from high-ranking bureaucrats who fear that their jobs would be rendered redundant or powerless.

The main "hatchet man" of the Cabinet is Mr Kamal Nath, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, who this week promised major concessions to business that he said would raise export revenues in five years from the current annual figure of US$61.8 billion to US$190 billion. Since Mr Nath is also close to Mrs Gandhi, his Cabinet colleagues tend to take his calls and exhortations quite seriously. Since Mr Nath (who will visit Singapore next weekend to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement) is also known for his sense of humour, few colleagues consider him a "heavy" - which is to say, his admonishments in behalf of Prime Minister Singh are almost always couched in pleasant language and earthy manners. He has emerged as the most effective Cabinet ally of Dr Singh.

The man who's considered the most ineffective Cabinet member is Mr K. Natwar Singh, the Minister of External Affairs. He's been privately warned by both Dr Singh and Mr Nath not to shoot from the hip - as he did several times recently when he spoke nostalgically of reviving the discredited and ineffectual Non-aligned Movement. An unreconstructed socialist, Mr Natwar Singh's durability in office is the subject of much speculation these days in New Delhi, especially since India wants to move politically closer to countries such as the United States and Singapore, where Leftism isn't especially favoured.

Of Mr P. Chidambaram's longevity, however, there's little doubt. He has proven himself an able administrator as Finance Minister. He's now transforming the sluggish Finance Ministry into an agency along the lines of the United States Treasury, a task that's been given to Dr Vijay Kelkar, a widely respected economist.

The Finance Minister is widely liked in the private sector, where Mr Chidambaram is perceived as a man who wants to generate even more economic liberalisation in order to make India more competitive in the global economy. In this, a worthy associate is Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, who's been asked by the Prime Minister to oversee national economic and fiscal reforms.

Prime Minister Singh has said that his goal is to make India an economic superpower. Is that a realistic goal? The Straits Times put this question to a senior advisor at Mr Chidambaram's Finance Minister.

"Not for another 20 years," the economist said, adding that India's current gross national product of US$665 billion would have to grow beyond US$3 trillion for it to even remotely qualify as a global economic superpower.

"We're already an economic power to be taken seriously, yes," he said. "But superpower? For that we need a totally open, export-oriented economy, much improved governance, a far better infrastructure, and widely educated and skilled human capital. Foreigners still find India a difficult country in which to do business. They are put off by the pervasive corruption, the poverty, the unreliability of transportation, the still continuing system of licences and inspections. We all have to gear up to the task of better managing a modern economy in a world of rapid globalisation."

But managing any economy inevitably raises the question of political stability, particularly in India where there's wide belief that no one party will dominate the polity. Here's the sense that the country is in for an indeterminate period of coalition politics on account of the rise of regional and local parties.

And the key question here is: Will the 14-party UPA be able too complete its five-year term? Already, its Communist partners have come down hard against inviting more foreign direct investment in vital sectors such as civil aviation. India gets barely US$3 billion annually in FDI, as compared to US$53 billion for China. And since the Singh Administration took over last May, foreign investors' interest has declined substantially. For India to sustain an annual economic growth rate of at least seven percent in order to raise its GDP to even US$1 trillion, it would need to attract about US$10 billion each year in foreign direct investment.

The other question that intrigues potential investors is whether Prime Minister Singh is simply a caretaker, warming the seat for Sonia Gandhi's 33-year-old son, Mr Rahul Gandhi. Mr Gandhi, who was elected to Parliament, has been given increasing responsibility in strengthening the Congress Party's grassroots base in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. He's photogenic, accessible, and in mannerisms and graciousness hauntingly reminds people of his late father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was murdered in 1991 by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber.

At 33, Rahul Gandhi might be deemed too young and too politically inexperienced to be named India's Prime Minister. But in two years' time?
Indians have historically been enamoured of dynasties. There were the Mauryas and the Guptas, who built fabulous temples and created empires thousands of years ago. There were the Mughals, who stormed in from Central Asia and helped created stunning architectural wonders such as the Taj Mahal. There was the British royal dynasty of Queen Victorian who laid the foundation of modern India by building railways, the postal and administrative services, and schools and roads.

And since the British departure from their "Jewel in the Crown" in 1947, the Nehrus and the Gandhis have pretty much been the nation's First Family. Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins may be a slightly adverse factor in her becoming India's next Prime Minister, especially because her BJP opponents have made an issue of her "foreignness."

But Mr Rahul Gandhi has the pedigree, he has the class, he has personal history, and he will almost surely acquire political acumen, if only by osmosis. He has a worthy teacher in his mother, and he has an extraordinary political legacy to draw on. And in a country where 75 percent of the people are under 30 years of age, a youthful leader might just energize India into becoming the world power that the septuagenarian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may simply not have the time in office for.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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