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22 April 2009

The Manmohan Singh Chronology

How would you react if this man were your colleague?
Surajit Dasgupta
In 1994, this writer came across a young girl who was then serving a direct sales associate of a multinational bank as a telemarketing executive. She must not have met the right people at the right time till then. For, with a PGDBM from IMT-Ghaziabad and a degree in commerce from SRCC, she deserved better. Within six months of our first meeting, however, I was glad to know she had become the supervisor of the NBFC which was also the American bank's DSA. But her colleagues were not impressed. They said she was having an affair with the marketing manager of the company. A few months later during a chat with that manager, I noticed he was visibly crest-fallen. The reason turned out to be the break up of his relationship with the girl in question. I learnt she was then seeing the area sales manager of a competing bank. Mutual acquaintances said the two were about to get married. Thereafter I left for Glasgow for higher studies and didn't care much as to what my peer group was doing back home. During my short vacation in the autumn of 1997, I was told the girl eventually got married to the vice-president, marketing, of a third bank. By the time I left the banking sector in 1999, she was divorced and married again. This time the man was the Asia head of a fourth bank. In early-2004, the woman was made the country head of a multinational NBFC.

Was she, at least officially, a person of honesty and integrity? Of course, yes. Of the dozens of bank documents that she had forwarded to me in 1994-95, there was not a single case of misrepresentation of facts. There was not even a case of any customer's forged signature, a malaise I otherwise found to be rampant among the salespersons of the banking sector. Did her academic certificates merit her phenomenal rise in the profession? You can't question that either. But were these two the prime reasons for her skyrocketing career graph? Well, not all her peers are convinced they were.

As for the government sector, till the 1980s, an IAS aspirant carrying a bagful of university certificates was not rare. The records turned all the more impressive just a few years before liberalisation was unleashed on India, as hordes of IIT graduates opted for the civil services, leaving engineering for good. I recall as a school student in the 1980s when I subscribed to Competition Success Review, even the résumé (not full bio-data) of some interviewees who had crossed the preliminaries and mains of the IAS entrance exams would exceed a column of the magazine. How many of them could become a Manmohan Singh? If the counter-argument of supporters of the Indian National Congress is to be believed, that will make too many cases of plain 'bad luck'!

Far bigger is the population of 'losers' in other government offices. In the period when Manmohan Singh climbed the ranks of hierarchy in bureaucracy (from the 1960s to the 1980s), a salary hike meant something to the tune of Rs 20 - Rs 50 after serving for a year or two at a certain level of a government office. A hike beyond Rs 100 meant promotion to a higher grade, while keeping the same designation. That came once in more than five years. A hike beyond Rs 250 meant a higher designation, which rarely happened more than thrice in a person's 30-35 years career span. Were those teeming millions all crooks?

There is a paradox in the thought process of onlookers. On the one hand, ask a loser why he couldn't make it big in life. Chances are high, he has an alibi of honesty. On the other, point out to him the illustrious growth of a known personality in society and he exclaims, "Wow!"

That the Indian Prime Minister is the epitome of honesty and integrity is a notion not even his biggest detractor in politics dares to challenge. No doubt, most people are in awe of university certificates; the larger their number, the further down your jaw drops. The height such a collector of degrees attains is all the more imposing in the backdrop of a polity that is regarded as largely corrupt, mostly comprising people with much lesser achievements in academics. Also, if beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, it must be noted that most journalists in the country are either Bachelors of Arts (pass course) or hold MA in history, not embellished further by an MPhil, let alone a PhD. As for business scribes, a sizeable number of whom are postgraduates in economics and commerce, we know how they conduct their routine business. They pick up information from corporate communication heads of companies, published brochures, leaflets, pamphlets and uploaded website content of those firms, besides sound-bytes of the CEOs from 15-minute-long interviews to decorate their stories, without ever trying to explore the darker alleys of the business houses by befriending executives from the purchase, sales, accounts and human resource departments. Let me not digress further to cover secret deals that some scribes strike with owners of certain companies after unearthing skeletons in the closet of the latter. Does it surprise anybody that this gentry would be in awe of an academic monster?

As regards the topic of this article, the silence in two quarters, in response to the rare challenge thrown at the grand notion about Manmohan Singh, is intriguing. The first quarter is that of true intellectuals. This writer first ran into a bunch of leftist academicians when Singh was in the third year of his tenure as the country's finance minister. Not an economist, I was more amused than credulous as I lent an audience to their grouse that Singh had turned his education in economics a full 180 degrees since the days he served the Indira Gandhi Government as a bureaucrat. What was puzzling, those professors of Singh's subject of expertise either did not choose to voice their opinion in the mainstream media or any effort to do so might have been turned down by the editors.

The silence in the second quarter was more implausible. In the evening of 5 February 2006, I edited an article by Ajoy Bose for The Pioneer, "Manmohan, doctor of politics". Now, before someone dismisses that piece as rant by a 'BJP mouthpiece', it may be reminded that the editorial thinking of the said newspaper when Bose was its associate editor was clearly distinct from what Chandan Mitra turned it into after the latter took over as its chief editor. Though I served the said newspaper under Mitra, all its columnists necessarily did not change their political views after the transfer of ownership from the Thapars to CMYK Printech Ltd. And Bose must be quite a favourite with the current authority at the Centre; he is often invited for talk shows by Doordarshan!

Bose's article cast doubt on the manner in which Singh underwent quick hierarchical promotions in bureaucracy. Without naming Singh's peers whom he must have interviewed, Bose wondered how Singh "managed to flourish so well under different political masters through the turbulent 1970s and '80s". Perhaps because the article lacked raw data, leave alone incriminating pieces of evidence, neither the Congress nor any known fan of the man who was the article's subject bothered to send a rejoinder.

Then, the silence of the Congress turned deafening when on 21 May 2006, The Statesman published an article by Subroto Roy with several facts that cast aspersions on the character of Manmohan Singh as an economist and bureaucrat. Titled "The politics of Dr Singh", the article presented a chronology of events in Singh's career since his days as a student in University of Cambridge. For systematic reading, let us look at the contents of Roy's article in a bulletised format:

As a student -
(England onwards)
Greatest influences among teachers: Joan Robinson & Nicholas Kaldor (both communists)

Manmohan Singh's description of his teachers: "Kaldor influenced me... I found him pragmatic, scintillating, stimulating. Joan Robinson was a great admirer of what was going on in China, but Kaldor used the Keynesian analysis to demonstrate that capitalism could be made to work."

"What was going on in China" back then?

Mao Zedong's "Little Leap Forward" followed by "Great Leap Forward".
Curiously, Mao himself apologised to the Chinese people subsequently for both.

More about Kaldor:
In Canadian economist Harry Johnson's words: “being a man who rolls with the times fairly fast, Kaldor decided early on that capitalism actually was working. So for him the problem was, given that it works, it cannot possibly work because the theory of it is right. It must work for some quite unsuspected reason which only people as intelligent as himself (sic) can see.”

Like Robinson, Kaldor made a handful of fine contributions to economic theory. But in policy-making he exemplified the worst leftist intellectual vanity and “technocratic” arrogance.

As an academician -
1969: Singh becomes Professor of International Trade at the Delhi School of Economics
Colleagues Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty give his thesis on planning and protectionism in the American Economic Review a passing mention in the footnotes.

As a bureaucrat -
March 1971: Seeks 'blessings' of PN Haksar, who had followed his model of protectionism to help Indira Gandhi's regime nationalise banks, to join bureaucracy
Haksar's background:
• In London, protégé of R Palme Dutt and Krishna Menon
• IFS under Jawaharlal Nehru's regime
• May 1967 onwards, Indira Gandhi’s adviser

Haksar's feats:
• Nationalisation of India’s banks
• The Congress split and creation of the Congress(I)
• Politicisation of the bureaucracy including the intelligence services
• Highly placed civil servants became politically committed pro-USSR bureaucrats
• Beginning of courtier culture and durbar politics
• A key figure negotiating the August 1971 “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” with the USSR: was supposed to run 25 years (but the USSR collapsed before the treaty) [This is, strictly speaking, incorrect; the treaty was supposed to be renewed after 20 years, but wasn't. Before another of those 'goodwill' summit meetings of the Soviet president and the Indian prime minister could happen to finalise a draft to this effect, prepared by the bureaucrats of the two countries, Mikhail Gorbachev was mysteriously abducted, to be released a few days later only to see the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics].

Singh’s rise as Haksar’s protégé:
1972: Chief Economic Adviser
1976: Secretary in the Finance Ministry
1980-1982: at the Planning Commission
1982-1985: Reserve Bank Governor (when Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister)
Then Planning Commission head
1987-1990 in Geneva: head, “South-South Commission” (invented by Julius Nyerere of Tanzania).

Performance as a financial bureaucrat in the above duration:
• Origins of the Rs 30 lakh crore public debt we have today
• Beginning of exponential money supply growth and inflation

As a politician (almost) -
Dec 1990: joined Chandrashekhar’s dispensation
March 1991: Left Chandrashekhar after Rajiv Gandhi withdrew support and new elections were announced.
22 March 1991: Rajiv Gandhi prepares documents for liberalisation. Singh had nothing to do with the origins of the 1991 reform and never interacted with Rajiv Gandhi in the last months of the latter's life. Nor has he himself claimed otherwise. To the contrary, he was recovering from his first bypass operation. It was Subroto Roy's encounter with Rajiv Gandhi that led to the Congress's change of economic thinking in 1990-1991.

When Singh met Roy in September 1993 at the residence of the then Indian Ambassador to the US, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, he was directly told as much by Ray in the company of his senior aides. The Statesman columnist also presented him on that occasion the book, Foundations of India's Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, authored by the former and WE James in the University of Hawaii perestroika-for-India project.]

Before 1991, Dr Singh may be fairly described as a statist anti-liberal who travelled comfortably along with the tides of the pro-USSR New Delhi political and academic establishment, following every rule in the bureaucratic book and being obedient in face of arbitrary exercise of political and economic power. There is no evidence whatsoever of him having been a liberal economist before 1991, nor indeed of having originated any liberal economic idea afterwards.

Mission unaccomplished:
• Continuing deficit finance
• No measure to check corruption
• No enforcement of clean accounting
• No strict audits

Skipping 11 years…
May 2002: Congress passes a resolution saying the ideas of India’s liberalisation had originated with neither Manmohan Singh nor Narasimha Rao!

The account was too damning and the newspaper that carried it too credible to be ignored. But ignore Singh's party did. Why? Was it out of the fear that any action, legal or otherwise, would turn the article or its writer more popular and more people might revisit and perhaps revise their opinion about the current prime minister?

As the "honesty" and "integrity" of our prime minister has turned almost into an electioneering slogan of the Congress, it's time to dig deeper. It's also time for every citizen with at least 10 years of work experience in any office to look back at the years gone by in the big, bad world of professions and think: What kind of an executive sees so many promotions (so frequently) in his/her career?

On reverting back to the Calcutta University teachers whom I had met in 1994, two of them said they did not fancy writing to newspapers. Four others who did were turned down by the respective editors of The Telegraph and The Statesman. The latter too was heaving a sigh of relief after decades of socialist stranglehold on the Indian economy, and it was ready to ignore the peccadilloes of the architect (or mason?) of liberalisation. Without minute study, the second newspaper may look anti-Congress, but actually it was more averse to the policies of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi than those of PV Narasimha Rao. The few junior journalists (in terms of designation, not age) who recalled Singh's socialist days – and were not convinced that economics was not supposed to be straitjacketed – were not in a position in the respective newspapers they worked with, to get space in the editorial or op-editorial pages for their anti-Manmohan Singh compositions.

About a dozen of my acquaintances in the Indian National Congress in the final days of the Narasimha Rao regime and, more so, in the days of the United Front Government, when they were seething with rage despairing at the disintegration of their party, came in handy. I recalled one among several rounds of chats I had had at the places of some Congressmen when Sitaram Kesri was the party president. They frothed at the mouth, attributing horrendous motives to the Rao-Singh duo. Rao was accused of being an RSS agent and Singh no more than a stooge. In the milieu of those MLAs and councillors used to be a senior journalist of (The) Hindustan Times. He, who narrated most stories of conspiracy, intrigue and subterfuge, is now among the senior-most editors of the newspaper. There also used to be a business journalist, these days seen often as an expert in various television news channels for analyses of annual budget proposals.

Separating the wheat from the chaff from the accounts of the above academicians, politicians and journalists, and removing the eulogy part from articles by some business journalists that appeared in the last two decades in The Business Standard and The Financial Express, the picture of Manmohan Singh's career that emerges is as follows.

One could argue against Subroto Roy's article, saying that Manmohan Singh's rise in bureaucracy remained undisturbed in the period 1976-80 when PN Haksar was not at the helm. But Haksar was very much at the helm much longer, not in his position as the principal secretary to the prime minister, but apparently ruling through the 'proxy' of his successors, the first of whom was another “PN” – PN Dhar.

Sensing Dhar's promotion, before Haksar fell out of Indira’s favour in 1973 and retired in 1974, a then Congress MLA from west Delhi told me, Singh had already pre-empted the possibility of a void in the position of a favourable boss being filled by a not-so-friendly one. He had got in touch with Dhar, whom he knew as one of the founding members of the Delhi School of Economics where he taught. Thus, the parting of one godfather saw the arrival of another for Singh; this time, of course, it was more of an old friend than a boss.

Not bad, still! The friend recommended Singh to Lalit Narayan Mishra, the then minister for foreign trade, for the post of economic adviser. According to the above theorist, this is what appears to have transpired backstage:

The Singh-Mishra meeting was 'organised' in an India-US-Chile flight. The minister for commerce (then called minister for foreign trade) was on his way to Santiago, Chile, to attend a meeting of the UNCTAD. Dhar allegedly informed Singh of the opportunity and asked him to book a ticket in the same flight. The excuse: Those days, Singh was with the UN too – he was chief, financing for trade section, UNCTAD – and hence his being in the same flight wouldn't raise eyebrows. Besides, Singh would disembark in New York (where his UN office was) and so wouldn't share at least the destination with the minister.

A few days later, on Mishra's return, Dhar called on him to inquire if he had heard of Singh. The latter answered in the affirmative, adding that he had had the 'opportunity' to hear the economist's views on board the aforementioned flight. That was when Dhar recommended Singh (as the next economic adviser) to Mishra.

If the former MLA who told me the story is to be dismissed as a disgruntled element of the Congress, even then it must be added that Mishra's and Singh's being in the same flight and holding a well-intentioned tête-à-tête on the economic condition of the country while on board, was an astonishing instance of coincidence. That the two were in the same flight is a fact. That the two discussed governmental and not academic economics appeared in the form of articles in at least three newspapers. Whether the opportunity was 'created' by Singh is what may be left to the reader's imagination and discretion.

Manmohan Singh’s ‘achievements’ as economic adviser:
• The economy hurtled into crisis
• Hit already by drought in 1973, the (Indira) Gandhi-Dhar-Singh team aggravated the situation by nationalising wholesale trade in foodgrains, which, in turn, created the first unholy cartel of hoarders
• Rate of inflation touched 30%
• Panicked, Singh froze dearness allowance and cut short corporate dividends drastically
• The stock market plunged
• Private companies shut shop one after another, facing incessant strikes by workers

This brings us to the question whether Charan Singh was 'double-crossed'. In 1979, knowingly or inadvertently, Singh made the breakaway Janata Party's Government (led by Charan Singh's Bharatiya Lok Dal) look worse by increasing corporate tax manifold, alleged the HT journalist in 1999, sharing tea with this chance visitor to Ekta Gardens apartment in east Delhi, the house of a local leader of the Congress (I was accompanying a journalist friend who was her tenant, occupying her house in Una Enclave; he was there not only to pay her the month's house rent but also to maintain good offices with some powers-that-be).

Back to the main story, not to be cowered by the hike in tax, the companies passed the additional cost on to customers. Result:
• Prices of essential commodities like soaps, toothpastes, etc – held as a monopoly by Hindustan Lever Ltd, thanks to the government's complicity – skyrocketed
• Followed by the second oil shock, the rate of inflation shot up once again to 17%
• People voted back Indira Gandhi
Singh was promoted to a ministerial rank, picked up from (one of the departments of) the Planning Commission and made the Governor of the Reserve Bank after the retirement of IG Patel two years later.

As I contested the HT journalist's claim, my friend said to me in Bengali not to antagonise him, as he was paving his way to joining the said newspaper. "Could an ordinary bureaucrat have pulled off the above stratagem flawlessly?" I wondered when back home. No. But research yielded that Singh was simultaneously Director, Reserve Bank of India (1976-1980), Director, Industrial Development Bank of India (1976-1980) and Secretary, Ministry of Finance (Department of Economic Affairs), Government of India, (1977-1980). Such a man could surely push for the proposal of increased corporate taxes through his advisories to the then minister of finance. Was that minister in the Janata Party Government, Haribhai M Patel, a fool to have paid heed to Singh? Not quite. Patel was an economist himself. But who does not know of the sadistic pleasure economists and politicians alike derived by taxing 'villainous' capitalists in that era? Who cared that it would finally be the ordinary citizens who would feel the heat of high tax imposition on business houses? That the citizenry by and large votes negatively when it turns a victim of wrong economic policies is as true as the less important fact that most citizens are lay people and not economists.

The obvious questions that arise at this juncture are: First, was increasing the corporate tax manifold in 1979, when companies were collapsing like a house of cards, a normal thing to do, especially when the consequences of freezing dearness allowance and cutting short corporate dividends drastically a few years earlier was common knowledge? If the instruction to do so wasn't of an external vested interest, but of Singh's own, then it puts a serious question mark on Singh's understanding of economics. If indeed he had thought that doing the opposite would have been wiser, against the opinion of the then finance minister, that's yet another occasion when the wise bureaucrat thought silence was golden or wiser. Second, how come Singh received two promotions immediately after Indira Gandhi came back to power, though with the above kind of performance under the Charan Singh regime, he deserved to pay and not be paid? Coincidence?

Let's give Singh the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that the economic policy pursued by the functionaries of the Janata Party Government had no Indira connection. Even then, it does not behove the noblest of men to remain silent at critical junctures of their respective professions. Anybody who has had a brush with academics with Singh's kind of education knows how strong-headed such intellectuals generally are. Facing a similar predicament, a true intellectual is more likely to sacrifice his career and not his conviction in the subject of his expertise. If Singh's admiration of John Maynard Keynes is indeed not restricted to glowing verbosity, why does his career have no instance comparable to his idol's selling of Spanish pesetas to break the market instead of handing the cache over to the British government? Similar to the manner in which Keynes invited his unpopularity within the British Government for his criticism of the Treaty of Versailles, can one imagine Singh going against a treaty the government, of which he is/was a part, signs/signed? Finally, if he were a true intellectual, why are there no tomes on new economic theories that Singh got published after entering the professional world, after his Export Trends and Prospects for Self-Sustained Growth (Oxford University Press, 1964), unlike Keynes's never-ending contributions as a writer/philosopher? One of the reasons is documented. Singh tried to return to academics in 1990; though he was qualified as a professor, the Punjab University syndicate rejected his selection saying "his first love is politics rather than economics".

The followers of the Austrian School may take serious exceptions to Keynesian theories, but that's not the subject matter of this article. What this piece is probing is some trace of the typical, non-negotiable conviction that intellectuals are known (or ill-known?) for, in Manmohan Singh's career. The search till the year 1996 in the subject's career found no such trace. Once in a while he did put his foot down, but it soon gave way to professional expediency. Three examples follow.

The now-dissolved Bank of Credit and Commerce International, established and run by a Pakistani wheeler-dealer, had applied for permission to open a branch in Mumbai during Singh's stint as the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India in the early 1980s. Singh rejected the application. Some Delhi satraps frowned. Singh offered to resign (this was his first resignation drama, repeated more famously while he was Narasimha Rao's Finance Minister). He was persuaded to stay on. The dubious Pakistani got his licence nevertheless.

In the second instance, when the request to the Centre to fund film-star-turned-Tamil-Nadu-Chief Minister MG Ramachandran's 'populist' mid-day meal for schoolchildren was turned down by Singh, and the former thespian rushed out of the Yojana Bhawan, why did the latter run behind to pacify him? I cannot imagine, say, my physics professor rushing to calm down, say, Kapil Sibal after telling the science and technology minister in their first encounter that he knows nuts about science. And then, how come the mid-day meal scheme has started making eminent sense to the doctorate in economics in recent years when it was considered populist by the same 'expert' more than two decades ago?

Third, when Rajiv Gandhi wanted to turn the Planning Commission into a think-tank, Singh refused. Rajiv called the commission a "bunch of jokers" (and denied having said such a thing later). The commission's members resigned en masse. Manmohan Singh did not resign from the post of deputy chairman of the commission, but threatened to (there he goes again!). He tried to persuade his colleagues not to resign; he told a colleague, “This is a Mughal durbar!” and finally accepted the post of secretary of the Geneva-based South Commission when an offer came from the then President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. Meanwhile in the commission, Singh’s persuasion had failed as few withdrew their resignations.

One may of course argue that courage and conviction are not the same as foolhardiness. After all, back in 1984 when the anti-Sikh pogrom had unnerved Singh, he had sold his house in Model Town (near Delhi University) and bought one in Chandigarh, midway into his term as Governor, Reserve Bank. That must have been a more judicious thing to do in the face of rampaging mobs led, everybody knows without having legally cognisable proof, by some leaders of the Congress. Six years later, after Chandrashekhar pulled Manmohan Singh out of the South Commission, making him his Adviser on Economic Affairs (1990-1991), Singh tried to make Delhi his base once again. He would anyway be entitled to government housing later as he became the country's finance minister.

There is also no denying the fact that, contrary to the lifestyles of the fast climbers of professional hierarchy that this writer has come across in all offices, our prime minister always led a modest life. But while his buying a Maruti 800 to commute between home and office after he had to move out of the North Block in 1996 may be a statement of his characteristic humility, isn't the concern he shared with his colleagues that he would have to drive that car in Delhi's 'dangerous' roads also a comment on his nature to avoid risks? Was his eventual acceptance of government policies that made no sense in hardcore economics an extension of this timidity? Or was the selection of speech and silence on different occasions all calculated (in cold blood, if you will)?

The young audience may have heard the prime minister ridiculing the opposition leader LK Advani's charge that he is a "weak prime minister" for the first time. But as far as memory serves me right, he had said the same thing to his colleague in the finance ministry under the Narasimha Rao regime, Shankar Acharya. He had said, "Being loud should not be mistaken for being tough; you can be firm without being loud." True. But there was neither loudness nor firmness in the language of the nine letters, rather pleas, the prime minister's principal secretary and other officials had distributed among ministries after he took over, urging them to keep the official chief executive apprised of major policy initiatives before making announcements. The exposé was carried out and telecast by Times Now.

Back to the chronology, the then prime minister, Chandrashekhar, decided to mortgage gold abroad as security deposit against a forex loan, as India was left with reserves to fund only a few weeks of imports. The Congress was divided on the issue. While it attacked the despatch of gold in its political campaigns against Chandrashekhar, the party's head, Rajiv Gandhi, saw nothing wrong in using the country's gold to help the industry. Whether Manmohan Singh advised the then Prime Minister to mortgage gold is not known, but he certainly counselled Chandrashekhar to impose additional taxes of Rs 1,200 crore to rein in high fiscal deficit. Then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha now says he was “forced” to impose those taxes. Believe in Singh and not in Sinha if you must, but one cannot refute the observation that in a major part of Singh's career, he is seen to have nurtured in him a tremendous fascination for taxes. Is this nature not antithetical to the persona credited by most — and discredited by the left — as the pioneer of India's version of capitalism, howsoever convoluted the version may be?

Next, it was reported that Singh advised the Chandrashekhar Government to take an IMF loan; the government agreed and an IMF delegation was invited (they arrived months later when Rao was the prime minister). In the meantime, Rajiv Gandhi withdrew support from the government under the flimsy excuse of some beat constable loitering around his residence. With the end of the Chandrashekhar Government, Singh’s tenure as prime minister’s adviser ended.

After the Narasimha Rao era began, in August 1991, the rate of inflation rose to more than 17 %; the BoP crisis had already turned critical with India left with forex reserves just about enough to pay for three weeks’ imports. Under these circumstances, why did Rao summon Singh’s predecessor at RBI, IG Patel, and request him to accept the post of finance minister in his cabinet? Why was Singh the second preference? Was Rao, a scholar himself, less impressed by Singh's truckload of university certificates? Here, Singh's luck played its part for sure as Patel refused to be drawn into politics.

Liberalisation began. And so did rollbacks, albeit with less frequency than those of Yashwant Sinha many years later under the NDA regime. The economic reforms, which was Rao's philosophy coupled with Singh's execution, included cuts in subsidies on food and fertilizer prices, leading to their price-rise. Wait for two years thence and you will notice the rollback.

In 1993, campaigning for assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh began. NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam led a populist ‘coup’, announcing rice to be sold at Rs 2 per kg. On the penultimate day of the campaign, Narasimha Rao promised to make rice available for Re 1 per kg, provided the people were ready to pay for the loss to the exchequer while purchasing other goods. Voters probably didn’t understand sane economics; the Congress lost the assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka even as Singh was asked to take the middle path by drifting away from his earlier technocratic reforms; Singh obliged. The Centre’s subsidies on food and fertilizer prices rose again.

Finally, as they say, a part of what is a popular perception must be true. In course of the research, this writer comes across a rare instance of Singh’s camaraderie. He is not a bad man, after all! Back in 1991 when the IMF delegation had turned up only after a regime change in India, it complained that the tax revenue numbers were not credible; they were too optimistic. To make matters look fishier, the revenue secretary disowned his own figures. Singh convened an emergency meeting and threw a question to his subordinates, "Have I asked any of you to fudge the Budget numbers?"

Singh informed Rao about the problem with some of his officers but finally took the burden entirely on himself. Without being argumentative, this is what can be agreed upon by all as an instance of ideal behaviour by a colleague in any organisation. How many people have the courage to contradict a boss, even for the right reasons? It takes a much bigger resolve of character to stand by your juniors, if not the juniors have deliberately indulged in fraudulence.

Anyway, the immediate period post-IMF meeting was marked by the advent of India’s globalisation. Rollback, or the one-step-forward-and-two-back policy, affected the process as much as it affected liberalisation. This is how the events unfolded. In 1991, fiscal deficit burgeoned to nearly 9 % of the GDP and the current account deficit rose to almost 3 % of the GDP. The flight of capital from India peaked. Pre-budget, Singh devalued the rupee in two steps — by 16 % and 6 %, slashed export subsidies and abolished industrial licensing. Post-budget, he cut down government expenditure. It was then that political pressure mounted. And as in so many cases explained above, Singh bowed again. As a result, against the set target of reducing the fiscal deficit to about 4% of the GDP in 5 years, the then government managed to bring it down after 5 years to about 5.5% of the GDP. Goes without saying, this difference of 1.5% translated to a massive amount.

Certain notions are so deeply set in the public psyche, even hindsight many years later cannot rectify the myths. That India embarked upon a path to a free market regime in the period 1991-96 is one such notion. Reforms should mean competitive prices for the consumer, but almost all infrastructure projects at that time were pursued without competition, Enron and Cogentrix being two prime examples. Further, I have written in various fora how letting only two players per circle in the mobile telephony sector was a case of cronyism; at best it was a case of government dancing to the tune of a cartel. If not, why would the mobile phone service providers' purported concern for breaking even, after they invested massive amounts as licence fees, be a consumers’ problem? The then government seemed to have told the mobile cartel that a few years on it would be forced to throw the market open to competition; "till then, make as much money as you can!" (The nexus continues. If you are wondering why Internet telephony is not being given the green signal, look at a Sunil Mittal pleading the government for ‘mercy’ every other day).

The conflict between the bad habits acquired during decades of socialism and the newfound love for capitalism showed in the end result. While to its credit, the Rao-Singh regime could boast of successively increasing growth rates – 1991-92: 0.9%, 1992-93: 5.3%, 1993-94: 6.2%, 1994-95: 7.8% and 1995-96: 7.2% – dropping current account deficits (from 3.7 % of GDP in 1990-91 to 0.5 % in 1994-95), burgeoning foreign exchange reserves (from a default level to $ 17 billion at the end of 1995-96) and stupendous growth in manufacturing (from 0.6 % in 1991-92, growing by 4.2 % in 1992-93 and averaging a 10.7 % annual increase during the following four years, peaking at 13.6 % in 1995-96), the failures included a tacit maxim, "any power is better than no power". Corruption in all public-private partnership deals became the order of the day. And the Great Indian Securities Scam unfolded.

The Congress’s old guard led by Arjun Singh rightly questioned the leadership why the party was losing assembly elections despite the phenomenal economic progress. Then finally in 1996 the Congress lost the general elections mainly on the plank of corruption, though most voters couldn't really make out what the hell was meant by “securities scam”. I remember some former colleagues – all bankers – wondering, “What on earth is a scam? We have only read about scandals so far!” Some semi-intellectuals from West Bengal despaired over the phone that their AT Dev English-Bengali Dictionary did not have "scam" as an entry.

But make no mistake; a person's limited political vocabulary does not necessarily impede his understanding of politics. The majority of the electorate understood something in the government was terribly amiss. And then, the exploits of the then telecommunications minister, Sukhram — with wads of cold cash (worth Rs 3.62 crore) found stuffed in his mattresses, inside pillow covers and even in his toilets — were easy to fathom. People also suspected that implicating Narayan Dutt Tiwari and Madhavrao Scindia in cases of misappropriation was Rao's attempt to impress upon the people his unquestionable sense of justice and objectivity. Ultimately, few were impressed. The Congress lost the elections.

Thereafter, Manmohan Singh led a quiet life away from the media limelight. Journalists did not remember him more often than Sam Pitroda even when he became the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha after the fall of the IK Gujral Government. Pitroda has been recalled here because he was interviewed once or twice by presspersons to denounce any achievement claimed by the NDA Government on the science front just as Singh was remembered as many times to debunk the NDA's claims of success on the economic front. The BJP-led government was such a dispensation that wouldn't conceive, let alone allow, Singh's rehabilitation as the head or representative of some international body. India and the world wouldn't have heard much about him after 1998 if not the NDA lost the 2004 election.

That does not mean Singh stopped dreaming. When advised by admirers to leave the Congress in 1996 and concentrate again on propounding economic philosophies, he had dismissed the plea with his signature feeble voice, thus, "But I am in politics!" It seems somewhere in his subconscious he fancied his chances in a possible second innings in the future. Soon after the 1996 elections at a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party, he quoted the "Caesar's wife" proverb. the insinuation was clear; he was distancing himself from Narasimha Rao. But he knew his future would be in the Congress. This was evident when he clarified, in the backdrop of the speculation that he could resume work as the country's finance minister under the United Front Government, that he had no inclination whatsoever for the job. By then, Kesri had already nominated him to the Congress Working Committee.

Between 1996 and 2004, the media first celebrated P Chidambaram's “Dream Budget” post-March 1997. Then it engaged itself with gloomy stories of the slowdown as the growth rate plummeted from 7.5% to only 5% in 1997-98. The industrial growth in the last financial year at 4.2% was nothing great to write home about. Agriculture saw a slump downward from 199 million tonnes to 194 million tonnes. The export market went down from a 20% growth in 1995-96 to 3% growth in 1997-98.

In 1998, the Congress withdrew support to the then government and the BJP-led NDA ascended to power. The media did not need a Manmohan Singh to know how to laugh at the next finance minister, Yashwant 'Rollback' Sinha. It did not even need the Congress to accuse that Sinha was the RSS’s candidate. KS Sudarshan reportedly vetoed the appointment of Jaswant Singh as finance minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's first Cabinet.

When some journalists finally approached Singh to respond to Sinha's economics, his opposition did not sound convincing in the face of a 35% increase in the budgetary allocations for infrastructure, lowering of real interest rates, introduction of tax deduction for mortgage interest, freeing up of the telecom sector, helping fund the National Highways Authority, deregulating petroleum industry and, most importantly, in 2001, the fact that government warehouses were overflowing with grain despite the second year of deficient rainfall in 30 out of 35 meteorological sub-divisions. Feats similar to these Singh should have achieved in his tenure.

Where Singh would have sounded credible in criticism of the NDA Government, he strangely missed the target. Sinha refused to touch the sensitive issue of agricultural reforms and subsidies, with farmers already reeling under the problem of water scarcity and pressure of low product prices. Singh did not criticise Sinha when the cement industry formed a cartel to boost profits by cutting production and hiking prices. In banking, the left parties seized the opportunity from Singh to engage the government in a never-ending debate on divestment and retaining the public sector character of nationalised banks, even as they rapidly lost market share to better technology, speedier decision making and high service standards of private banks. Singh was not sure whether or not to take the government to task for the faults in the Divestment Commission, which, after transforming into a separate ministry, the Ministry for Disinvestment, managed to divest only a loss-making Modern Foods during Arun Jaitley's tenure and VSNL, Maruti Udyog and Air India under Arun Shourie.

If Manmohan Singh really believed in globalisation, as an economist if not as a Congressman, he could have said he was personally against the RSS's efforts to instil a hysterical public phobia about a "multinational lobby". Little did Sudershan realise that the domestic lobby he was batting for was no less unscrupulous. Then the combined might of BMS-VHP-RSS took on the BJP, with the BMS attacking its labour and privatisation policies and the VHP playing the scratch-ridden Ayodhya LP record. Singh finally chose the right topic to pan the BJP when the Unit Trust of India scam surfaced.

Thereafter, the Congress chose to remain silent on the pretext of "internal affairs of the Sangh Parivar" even as the RSS and domestic industrialists’ lobby, irked by reforms, forced Vajpayee to move Yashwant Sinha to the External Affairs Ministry. The Swadeshi Jagran Manch in fact wanted the then Human Resource Development Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, to replace Sinha. Sudershan, flanked by S Gurumurthy, TVR Shenoy, Deena Nath Mishra and Balbir Punj at a dinner meeting, unable to thwart the then Commerce Minister, Murasoli Maran, from advancing the deadline for importing items under the Open General Licence by three years, thought Sinha's departure would halt the process. The Swadeshi lobby wanted the then Power Minister, PR Kumaramanglam, to be shifted from power to petrochemicals and fertilizers and Arun Jaitley out from the disinvestment portfolio.

Then came Jaswant Singh, visibly less flamboyant and perhaps less effective than what he was in his previous office of the ministry of external affairs. If there is a public notion that Manmohan Singh's second innings post-2004 saw the coinage of the term, "reforms with a human face", it's a myth. It was Jaswant Singh who first talked of feeding the poor and leaving more money with housewives post-1991. Never mind Manmohan Singh's rollbacks in the period 1993-96, analysts were inhibited to speak about the poor since the day the paradigm of discourse on economics had shifted in 1991.

Why did Manmohan Singh keep silent instead of telling Jaswant Singh that, to the best of his knowledge of economics, there was no such concept of a "gross contentment index of people"? Was the quietude planned so that, in case the Congress sprung back to power — which it did — the 'human-faced reforms' would be marketed better? Not likely. The BJP lost the 2004 election, but the Congress did not win it. Nor did it expect to return to power that year. In any event, the very coinage of the 'human face' is a political construct, not extracted from any textbook of economics. And if indeed economics could have a human face, there could be nothing more human or humane than giving the poor opportunities to turn rich. But one never heard such advocacy of the free market by Manmohan Singh. Should he continue to be touted as a liberal economist? Why does his liberalism vanish every time the economic compulsion to liberalise vanishes and the political pressure from non-economists not to liberalise resurfaces?

Most journalists cannot stand P Chidambaram. They say his responses to their queries are mostly dismissive or arrogant or both. No wonder he has never been elevated to the godlike status accorded to Singh by the fourth estate. But his performances as the commerce minister in Narasimha Rao's cabinet, the finance minister in the United Front Government and with the same portfolio again under the UPA dispensation have been less erratic, more consistent and never extreme left or right. If most students of various schools of economics are shown a romantic and, thus, attractive view of socialism by the teachers, Chidambaram never got completely disillusioned by the philanthropic idea inculcated in the argument that favours government control over industries. Well, he does not have a PhD in economics, but his MBA from Harvard Business School, the US, a country where the mood in university campuses is distinctly left-of-centre, must have groomed him similarly. Still, he never ruled out the idea that, in several sectors, capitalism helps. We therefore see some continuity in his policies. But isn't the period 2004-2008 — Chidambaram left the finance ministry after the 26-28 November 2008 Mumbai massacre by terrorists, to replace Shivraj Patil as the home minister — supposed to be Manmohan Singh's era? If yes, was the plethora of taxes, including one that second-taxed the already taxed money when withdrawn from ATMs — a budgetary proposal that was withdrawn later — and the 'cess' on education Singh's idea? Or was it UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi's? In all likelihood, it was to humour the then Left allies who publicly hate the affluent, calling the class the bourgeoisie, with a tenor of speech that is similar to that in the frustrated middle class's speech, evident while calling the rich "filthy rich" or "stinking rich".

Business writer TN Ninan wrote on 1 November 2004, "While Dr Singh gains in confidence, it is not yet clear that success will crown his efforts. His government is playing with too many bad ideas (job reservation in the private sector, job guarantee programmes that could easily become mass-scale boondoggles, fudging the fiscal deficit in order to use accumulated dollars), and however much he may insist that he will move with caution, some of those bad ideas are going to become policy and law."

In June 2004, Outlook editor, who thoroughly enjoys being abused as a 'Congress chamchA', wrote for the BBC: "... friends of the Congress party and Sonia Gandhi, who still remains the president of the party, are wondering how the relationship between the prime minister and party president will fare. The Congress has been out of office for more than eight years and besides being hungry for power, the party is hungry for the goodies of office... Dr Singh, unfortunately, is against the prevailing culture of favours and nepotism and there is every possibility of aggrieved Congresswallahs knocking on Sonia's door with complaints against the good doctor."

"Parallel centres of power is another worry. Will Sonia Gandhi indulge in backseat driving? Will Dr Singh turn out to be a puppet? No, says Sonia. Why should she destabilise a prime minister she handpicked and placed on the chair? If Dr Singh succeeds in his new job, the credit will go to her. If he fails, she will carry the blame. Be that as it may, the Dr Singh-Sonia equation remains a question mark." Five years later, does Mehta think that is how praise and censure have been apportioned in the intervening period?

If it was not a bureaucrat being dictated by his political master(s) (1971-91), or a minister being given ideas by a prime minister (1991-96), or a prime minister being told what to do by his party's head, it is an ally telling him what to do, more importantly, what not to do (2004-2009). If nationalisation of wholesale trade in foodgrains was Indira Gandhi's idea, if increasing corporate taxes in 1979 was Charan Singh's or HM Patel's idea, if mortgaging the country's gold was Chandrashekhar's idea, if liberalisation and globalisation were ideas of the IMF-Narasimha Rao combine and, finally, reforms with a human face was Sonia Gandhi's idea with too much of facial massage (read NREGA) added by the left, what, for heaven's sake, is Manmohan Singh's idea?

The India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement? You never know. That could be former US President George Bush's idea. To quote pro-American newspaper The Times of India, the Bush-Singh "body language" gave a lot away (in the accompanying photograph, note Bush's right and left hands; you will know who is in control). To quote anti-American CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, "nothing changed between the July 2005 joint statement and the July 2008 culmination of the deal". If it were Manmohan Singh's idea and not a dictation from abroad, couldn't there have been room for negotiations and alterations in the draft before it turned into a bilateral-cum-international agreement?

To conclude, Manmohan Singh has but two words that sum up all his ideas: "Yes, boss!" True, Singh's thorough nuts-and-bolts knowledge of economics coupled with his modesty and humility endears him to foreign delegates as much as his political masters. But spare a thought for all the batchmates he has had since 1971. Given the fact that offices like the Prime Minister's Office, Planning Commission, Ministry of Finance, Reserve Bank of India, etc have no dearth of civil servants who are doctorates in economics, how would a certain Dr Ghosh or Dr Natarajan react if he were to notice that, while he listened only to his conscience, his colleague Dr Singh listened only to the boss? Imagine Dr Ghosh/Dr Natarajan is 30. He should attempt my question when he turns 60 on the day he retires. He may look at where Dr Singh is; then look at where he remains. He’s got the answer.

The writer is a mathematician, linguist and journalist

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.