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The importance of being Manmohan Singh...

Mumbai,(2011-12-05): ... is the importance of being earnest (with apologies to Oscar Wilde). A farcical comedy of sorts was in play for the past 10 days in New Delhi as the winter session of Parliament was log-jammed over the badly timed executive decision of introducing FDI in the retail sector. The Prime Minister was clearly ill-advised in pushing forward this decision just days before the Parliament was to meet and without consulting state representatives from his own party and allies. Deja vu? Indo-US nuclear deal?

Did the PM forget 'coalition dharma' again? Or did he think he could repeat his famous 'so be it' (August 2007) when he forced the nuclear deal on his allies and staked his prime ministership? Dr Manmohan Singh showed steely determination then and a strong conviction that the nuclear deal would usher India into a new league altogether. Fresh from the onslaught of the Sharm-el-Sheikh debacle, it seemed like Singh had jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

The UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi initially maintained a strategic silence but then backed the PM. Just as she backed his peace moves with Pakistan. When he wants to he can be quite adamant and stubborn. The problem is that these occasions are rare and often mistimed. The PM now heads a government that is seen as a scam tainted one, unable to usher in second generation economic reforms, battling one political crisis after the other, burdened with price rise, a lethargic bureaucracy and an opposition attacking him as being ineffective.

To go all in with an ambitious decision like FDI in retail sector when the chips are down was one hell of a bet. And the Prime Minister is no poker player. He is careful to the point of being overcautious, which is why the opposition, or more pertinently the Perpetual Prime Minister in Waiting, term him as being weak. 

Singh is not politically belligerent like Mamata Banerjee. He is not politically astute and sharp like Pranab Mukherjee. He is not pugnacious when in battle mode like P Chidambaram. He doesn't have the political charisma of Sonia Gandhi. He doesn't have the youthful optimism of Rahul Gandhi. What he has is conviction in his belief that in economic reforms lies India's success. His legacy will be the ushering in of reforms 20 years ago.

The second chapter has to be written in the next two years and four months. When it comes to politics versus economics, Singh bats for the latter. He leaves it to Sonia Gandhi to handle the former. But unfortunately for him, Mrs Gandhi has been unwell and her team hasn't pushed the allies to play ball on the FDI issue as was evident when Mamata forced a roll back of the decision. Globally, heads of governments are showing determination and drive to resuscitate dying economies. And here we are with an economy growing at nearly 7 per cent with more than 20,000 millionaires, second only to the US and China and the tenth largest in the world but unsure as to where we go from here.

Twenty years ago Singh had said, "...As Victor Hugo once said, 'No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come'. I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea." But 20 years later, a Mahatir Mohammad in New Delhi audaciously says that too much democracy has been India's undoing.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee whose job it is to put the economy back on track is an astute politician first. He knows that reformers don't win votes. Mukherjee recently said, "In a multi-party democracy, sometimes legislature process takes longer time than desired. But, I can assure that there will be steady (reforms) forward. The second generation reforms... include the recent deregulation of the savings interest rate, discussions on mode of presence of foreign banks and the process to give additional banking licences to private sector players."

Industry leaders have shown lukewarm responses to policy pronouncements by the Congress-led coalition, which gives in to flip-flop. Top down, the government seems directionless and lacking in the energy required to push forward the India story. 

© copyright midday

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I am the Editor News, at Asian News International (ANI), Indias leading Multimedia News Agency and the India Correspondent for Channel News Asia, a Singapore based broadcaster.
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