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India's embattled Dr Singh

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25 January 2012 09:29

Try conjuring a mental picture, if you can, of Ben Bernanke appearing before a Tea Party rally in South Carolina, or of Glenn Stevens struggling to be heard above the mêlée of Question Time in Canberra, and you are some way towards appreciating the predicament of the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh is an economist and former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India who in 2004 became an accidental prime minister, and thus the leader of the world's largest and most rambunctious democracy.

Unassuming and shy, with only a narrow emotional range, it is hard to think of a prime minister more temperamentally out of kilter with the mood of his fractious parliament. Nor one less personally ambitious. Had it not been for Sonia Gandhi's deep aversion to becoming prime minister in the confused aftermath of the 2004 election, the 79-year-old might now be enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Still, though, he battles on, albeit with a progressively more world-weary air.

This week India will mark Republic Day with its usual colour, flamboyance and bristling rocketry, but Dr Singh's embattled government has little, if anything, to rejoice in.

Something nearing paralysis afflicts parliament, as evidenced before Christmas when Singh failed to push through retail reforms that would have allowed multinational giants like Wal-mart to establish a foothold. His Government is continually beset by corruption allegations. His coalition partners are notoriously unreliable. He also has to contend with the constant political meddling of his sponsor, Sonia Gandhi, and the unending speculation surrounding her son, Rahul, the prime-ministerial-heir-apparent.

Even India's go-getting economy appears to be losing some of its mojo. Industrial output has slumped, inflation is high, at 7.5%, and the Government now predicts that the economy will expand by around 7% rather than 9.1%, its original forecast. Given that so much of India's rise came from the growing interconnectedness of the world economy, it is now more vulnerable to global slowdowns; what globalisation giveth, it can also taketh away. Corporate India also bemoans what it calls the policy paralysis from the most legislatively inactive parliament in living memory.

Little wonder, then, that words like 'fumbling' and 'ineffectual' have attached themselves to Dr Singh.

History will surely be more respectful to the Indian leader than his present-day critics. The good doctor is hardly to blame for the dysfunctionality of Delhi politics, an endemic problem. Nor the failure of Congress to command a parliamentary majority of its own, since the once-dominant party has been in decline for decades – even Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous state and the Gandhi's political fiefdom, has not had a Congress state government for 23 years. Personally unimpeachable, Singh is also one of the most honest and incorruptible of Indian politicians; the grubby deals, alleged to include chest fulls of cash, are left to party hacks.

This trustworthiness explains much of his success on the world stage, where he is seen as a global elder and sage. When Singh speaks at G-20 summits, says an admiring Barack Obama, his fellow leaders listen. Had the Indian Prime Minister not been such a faithful negotiating partner, the Bush Administration might not have pressed so strongly for the landmark US-India civil nuclear agreement in 2005. Certainly, his involvement and personal assurances offered a thin coating of sugar for opponents of the deal on Capitol Hill.

His calm influence, if not always appreciated at home, has also made South Asia less volatile. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks in 2008, Singh resisted the clamour for retaliation against Pakistan, thus avoiding the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that grew out of a smaller-scale assault by ISI-backed militants on the Indian parliament in December 2001. His presence lends weight to the argument that Pakistani generals and intelligence chiefs should end their India fixation.

On the economic front, Dr Singh has also pressed ahead with much-needed infrastructure spending – $1 trillion as part of the next five-year plan to finance roads, ports, and upgrades to the rail network and broadband. Nor should it be forgotten that already he can boast a legacy. When he served as the country's Finance Minister in the early 1990s, he arguably did more than any other Indian in putting down the foundations for its global rise.

Politically, he has also proved himself, if nothing else, a survivor, having become the first Prime Minister since Nehru to win re-election after serving a full five-year term. In a dynastic and caste-based system, where 37% of Congress parliamentarians are hereditary MPs, the Oxbridge graduate is also a reminder that merit is rewarded occasionally.

Still more important, he is also the first Sikh to become prime minister, thus helping to preserve India's secular ideal at a moment, seven years ago, when it was serious under threat from the Hindu nationalist BJP. 

So as the tanks rumble past his review stand on Thursday, and the strains of the fife and drum fill the Delhi air, it is worth remembering that Dr Singh still has an appreciative audience, even if much of it is found beyond the borders of India's sprawling republic.

Photo by Flickr user US Embassy New Delhi.

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