Ten years as head of government have taken a toll on Manmohan Singh, as they might of any other figure, no matter how sturdy. But the evaluation of posterity is likely to do him greater justice than that of his contemporaries, as the Prime Minister has himself hoped. The public remembers this period, particularly its latter half, more for the unremitting rise in prices, slowed employment, reduced economic growth, and the highlighting of corruption in government systems as seen in the 2G spectrum case and the coal block allocations, and rather less for the strides in the social sector like ensuring the right to food for the poor, making right to education compulsory, raising public sector health expenditure in order to benefit the disadvantaged, the raising of rural wages, and crafting a reasonably successful system for tackling rural unemployment although NREGS has serious deficiencies.
While the negatives noted above are rooted in complex system issues, and to an extent in the overall slowdown of the international economy, it is undeniable that the Prime Minister was unable to give the impression that he was moving heaven and earth to root out corruption.
But for all that, as Dr Singh, the renowned economist whose counsel was heard with attention by leaders of major countries, prepares to lay down office, his personal reputation for integrity remains undimmed, and he continues to be regarded with some affection for undertaking the mission of running India’s continental-size government, a task for which he was not quite equipped, considering he came from professional service and not from the political ranks.
The locus of power in the UPA years undeniably lay with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and that is the way it was perceived by the Congress Party too. In some areas, two centres of power were evident and this became a subject of sharp criticism by the Congress’ adversaries as Mrs Gandhi sought to steer some of the energies of the Singh dispensation toward welfare-oriented measures in the social-democratic tradition.
But it is reckless and unfair to suggest, as some have done, that the Congress leader dictated policy to Dr Singh across the board and determined his choice of top officials. In fact, Mrs Gandhi’s political intervention was confined to the socio-economic dimension. But even that rankled business and industry and brought the charge of policy paralysis against UPA-2. It is well to contemplate why UPA-1 was spared criticism although Mrs Gandhi was politically in charge, as in UPA-2. Through both UPA governments, Dr Singh conceived and prosecuted reasonably successful foreign, defence and security policies, the basic sense of which is unlikely to be changed by his successor. A decent man bows out, although he would have desired to attain more.