Manmohan Singh: A Gentleman Prime Minister

Published: February 18, 2015 - 18:12 Updated: June 30, 2015 - 15:43

Political friends or foes, journalists critical of him or otherwise, former civil servants strongly critical of his functioning or civil servants working under him, he was exceedingly polite to all

BK Chaturvedi Delhi

Barack Obama during his recent visit to our country complimented the Indian Government for its success in lifting millions out of poverty. The U.N, the World Bank and international development agencies have repeatedly noted India’s effort in reducing poverty. During the last decade nearly one hundred and fifty million people crossed the poverty line which is higher than any previous decade. It is unfortunate that many in the country maligned and severely criticized the Prime Minister who spearheaded this change.  When Man Mohan Singh demitted office, there were questions about his legacy. Now that the dust of Parliamentary election has settled down, one can make efforts for an objective assessment of his legacy. Making an assessment of a decade is a difficult task. Even his most severe critics do not, however, question his enormous courtesy and great humility. During my working with him for a decade, his politeness, sincerity and openness to hear all views, was very clear to me. Political friends or foes, journalists critical of him or otherwise, former civil servants strongly critical of his functioning or civil servants working under him, he was exceedingly polite to all. He has been a gentleman to the core.

In Judging his 10 years of stewardship, we can look at performance of the economy, issues of governance and his legacy to the nation. Let me briefly dwell on these three aspects. During the period when he presided over the Government, the Indian economy recorded GDP growth and increase in per capita incomes which were the highest ever achieved in any 10 year period post or pre reforms in Independent India. GDP grew at an average rate of about 7.8 per cent during this period with slowdown in last two years despite global economic crisis in 2008-09. World Bank data indicates that incomes doubled in current Dollar values from $650 per capita (2004) to $1499 per capita (2013). RBI data shows 82 percent increase in per capita incomes from Rs 25,780 to Rs 46,051 in 2004-05 constant Rupee terms during this period. GDP increased three times in current US $ terms from $618 billion to $1878 billion during this period. RBI data shows that GDP increased in above period more than two times from Rs 27,757 billion to Rs 57,417 billion.

Infrastructure investment including in roads, power, airports, railways, telecom and ports increased during this period from 4.5 percent of GDP in 2003-04 to about 7 percent of GDP in 2011-12. Power capacities annual average accretion went up two and a half times of earlier decades and power generation increased sharply. Telecom connections went up twelve times from 76.5 million in 2004 to 933.0 million in 2013.

The NSSO data indicates that rural consumption recorded one of the highest growths and went up three times faster during this period as against previous ten years. Poverty declined sharply from 37.8 percent in 2004-05 to 21.9 percent in 2011-12 and more than 150 million people were lifted out of poverty. The infant mortality rate dropped to 42, a decline of 28 percent, highest in any earlier ten year period since 1971 from when data is available. Maternal mortality declined to 178 in 2010-12 from 301 in 2001-03. Regional inequality index improved with Northeastern states showing growth higher than the national average and all BIMARU states stepping up growth led by Bihar.

While commenting on Singh’s government on its governance, it will be essential to keep in mind two limitations of the government. First, his party did not have a majority in Lok Sabha and he had to run a coalition government. A lot of time was therefore spent in developing a consensus.  Second, the political power in the party lay primarily with chairperson UPA.

Within this constraint his government took several excellent policy initiatives. These include vastly improved transparency in functioning of government through the RTI act, the Civil Nuclear deal with the US and the resultant ending of apartheid vis-a-vis India in Nuclear and high technology areas, stable tenures of secretaries in key ministries of Defense, Home and Foreign Affairs, and constitution of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission in Independent India to suggest changes in the governance system..

In Rural India, employment opportunities increased as a consequence of large allocation of funds through MGNREGS and terms of trade changed in favor of agriculture by sharp increases in MSP of major food crops and pulses. This had some inflationary impact but it corrected the inequity and incentivized agriculture production. The reforms in centrally sponsored schemes with larger say of states were far reaching and were done in the last year of the government.

Dr Singh’s government was criticized by several political analysts and political parties on two specific allegations: failure to control corruption and policy paralysis in last two years. One must appreciate that petty corruption and large political corruption is endemic in nearly all countries with low per capita incomes like ours. In our country politicians spend crores of rupees to fight election. Funds are collected from corporates and large business houses by all political parties.  There is no free lunch. All political parties to varying degree hence indulge in corrupt practices to repay their benefactors. There was no indication that corruption increased during this period according to Transparency International or World Bank data, the two international agencies which measure corruption in all national economies. The levels of corruption remained almost stable during this period as per their data. With Anna Hazare movement, focus on corruption prevalent in the government was, however, very strong.

 Two specific areas of coal and spectrum distribution came in for a lot of criticism both by the government‘s Chief Auditor and the media. In these cases it was argued that policy on allocation of these natural resources should have been revised and allocation even per this policy were not fair. The first argument is a bit odd. On this ground any policy change should render all earlier governments as corrupt. Policy making is a complex process and not revising it cannot be termed as a corrupt action unless there is a specific evidence of complicity. 

The architecture of governance where political power was not with the Prime Minister, particularly in a coalition Government, did not result in a strong PM’s Office. With Singh, a man of high ethical values, an effective curb on such corrupt practices would have been possible. In absence of political power with him, the controls were not strong. The present government of PM Modi with no such constraints is in a position to have much better control over errant behavior and improve governance in such areas. Whether it shows the will and makes use of this advantage, we will come to know after a few years.

The criticism of policy paralysis is more an assessment of the governments functioning. It would have been indeed surprising if the atmosphere in the country did not impact decision taking. It is not a reflection of any weakness in the government but an indication of adjustment of democratic institutions to criticism of public policy. While this process took some time initially, the constitution of the cabinet committee on infrastructure did put decision taking on faster track resulting in a GDP growth of 6.9 percent as per latest CSO data.

Dr Singh’s legacy is a quantum jump in country’s economy and its evolution to a higher level with tripling of our GDP, doubling of per capita incomes, sharp decline in poverty, and high level of growth in Northeastern and low income states of in the North. He will be however, always remembered as a Prime Minister who ended India’s nuclear apartheid.

The writer served as a Cabinet Secretary and later as member, Planning Commission.