Manmohan Singh failed to build on early political success; Ever the loyal servant, Mr Singh has appeared weak, timid, helpless and out of touch with India’s rising frustrations. “People look at him with pity, and even condescension”

January 3, 2014 3:58 pm

Manmohan Singh failed to build on early political success

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Announcing his imminent retirement from politics after a decade at the helm of the world’s second-most populous nation, Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said repeatedly on Friday that he awaited history’s verdict on his performance.“I have done the best I could under the circumstances,” he said. “It will be for the historians to judge how successful it was.”

India’s voters, however, are set to deliver their verdict much sooner – in upcoming parliamentary elections, when Mr Singh’s Congress party is expected to take a battering from its bitter rival the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party and other challengers.

The intensity of public disillusionment with Mr Singh and his government is a sad coda to the Oxford-trained economist’s once illustrious reputation as the primary architect of India’s transformative, market-opening reforms from 1991 until 1995.

The popular frustration also reflects the high expectations many Indians had of their premier, especially after Congress won re-election in 2009 – a victory many saw as a mandate for Mr Singh to press ahead with more dramatic reforms of both the economy and sclerotic government.

“In his second term, there were very strong expectations because he and his party won a very handsome mandate,” said Ashok Malik, a political commentator. “They thought he would do good things for the economy, and preside over a more transparent, cleaner government.”

Instead, Mr Singh was soon on the defensive over alleged corruption in his administration over theallocation of telecoms spectrum. He also faced internal resistance to his proposed reforms from long-time Congress apparatchiks, unconvinced by the market-opening agenda and worried his growing stature could overshadow the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has controlled the party for generations.

“His own party was not backing him,” says Mr Malik. “Manmohan personally believes in this more open, engaged India going out into the world. But I don’t think the Congress in its heart wants it.”

People look at him with pity, and even condescension

– Ashok Malik, political commentator

A career technocrat with no grassroots political experience, Mr Singh was unexpectedly elevated to the premiership in 2004 by the Congress party’s Italian-born leader Sonia Gandhi, after she led the Congress to a shock election victory. After the furore over her foreign origins persuaded her not to run the government, the Congress leader chose Mr Singh as a safe pair of hands to manage the administration.

The high point of Mr Singh’s first five-year term was a landmark civil nuclear deal with the US that ended New Delhi’s decades-old status as a nuclear pariah and potentially paved the way for transforming the once-fraught relations between the two democracies.

The nuclear deal was initially signed with then US president George W. Bush but was then stalled by India’s domestic politics. In 2008, as Mr Bush’s term was ending and the window of opportunity to conclude the formalities closing, Mr Singh staked his premiership on the deal, putting it to a parliamentary vote – which he won narrowly – in an act of intense political courage.

Less than a year later, Congress won a handsome mandate in the polls, which was seen partly as a vindication of Mr Singh and his newfound political spine. After the election, Indian newspapers and magazines trumpeted “Singh is King” and there was much optimism about the potential for a new wave of reforms.

But things quickly went downhill. Pranab Mukherjee, an old-style socialist, was kept as finance minister, despite Mr Singh’s wish to install a more reform-minded colleague.

The Central Bureau of Investigation also announced a probe into what it said were “serious irregularities” in the awarding of telecoms licences, the first of many scandals – over coal block allocations and public projects – that would come to overshadow the next few years.

Meanwhile, large Indian companies and foreign investors grew increasingly frustrated at the stalling of large scale infrastructure and industrial projects in battles over land and environmental clearances – problems Mr Singh was unable to resolve.

While few doubted Mr Singh’s own personal integrity, he did little and spoke less as the rising tide of problems slowly took a toll on economic growth, undermined national confidence and fuelled a fierce backlash against the political establishment.

Two years ago, Ramachandra Guha, historian and political commentator, wrote that Mr Singh’s disappointing performance could be attributed in part to his “timidity, bordering on obsequiousness” towards Mrs Gandhi, who was still seen as the real power behind Mr Singh’s throne.

A shrewder political operator might have been able to better navigate the complexities of the situation and stamp his own authority on the administration or insist on his way on certain issues, demanding the resignation of corrupt ministers.

But the political determination he had shown in the battle over the nuclear deal was never to be seen again. Ever the loyal servant, Mr Singh has appeared weak, timid, helpless and out of touch with India’s rising aspirations and frustrations.

“People look at him with pity, and even condescension,” said Mr Malik. “He is used to taking orders, and not giving them.”

Last updated: January 3, 2014 4:46 pm

India’s Manmohan Singh attacks rival Narendra Modi in parting shot

By Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

India’s octogenarian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, attacked his most likely successor, Narendra Modi, saying his victory would be “disastrous” for the country as he announced his own imminent retirement from politics. In a rare press conference – his first in more than three years – Mr Singh on Friday said he would not seek a third term after India’s general elections later this year, and would “hand over the baton” even if his now-ruling Congress party were to win an unlikely victory. But the mild-mannered economist, usually known for his civility and avoidance of controversy, also launched a scathing attack on Mr Modi, the prime ministerial aspirant from the Congress’s rival Bharatiya Janata party. “I sincerely believe it would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the prime minister,” he said.

Mr Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state since 2001, has seemed the most likely beneficiary of public disillusionment with the incumbent Congress government.

On the campaign trail, he has projected himself as a strong and decisive leader in contrast to Mr Singh, now widely perceived as ineffectual.

But in an unusually strident reference to Mr Modi’s controversial record during deadly communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, when hundreds of civilians, mostly Muslims, were killed, the premier insisted Mr Modi was unsuitable to lead India.

“If by strong prime minister you mean you preside over the mass massacre of innocent citizens in the streets of Ahmedabad – if that is the measure of strength – I do not believe that sort of strength this country needs,” Mr Singh said.

Mr Modi, who has been trying to soften his image as a Hindu hardliner to appeal to more moderate voters, did not directly respond to the attack. But the BJP slammed the premier, saying his criticism of the Gujarat chief minister was designed to hide his own leadership failures.

The architect of India’s market-opening reforms in 1991, Mr Singh was unexpectedly elevated to the premiership by the Congress party’s Italian-born leader Sonia Gandhi in 2004, after she led the Congress to victory at the polls, before declining to lead the government.

In a unique division of labour, Mrs Gandhi managed the Congress party’s internal affairs and relations with its coalition partners, while Mr Singh focused primarily on policies and administration.

The Congress won an even stronger mandate in a 2009 election, seen as a vote of confidence in Mr Singh himself.

But the enthusiasm that greeted Mr Singh’s second term quickly faded with the administration, mired in allegations of corruption, struggling to slow spiralling inflation and reinvigorate faltering growth as corporate investment dried up.

I sincerely believe it would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the prime minister

– Manmohan Singh

Few Indians expected Mr Singh, who underwent open-heart surgery five years ago, to seek a third term in office. But his public declaration that he would stand down clears the way for the formal anointment of Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old scion of the Congress’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as the party’s prime ministerial aspirant.

“In a few months’ time, after the general election, I will hand the baton to a new prime minister,” Mr Singh said, adding that Mr Gandhi had “outstanding credentials” to lead India.

Mr Singh also defended his administration – and his personal conduct in office. “I have tried to serve this country with upmost dedication, commitment and integrity,” he said. “I have never used this office to enrich or reward my friends or my relatives.”

He added: “History will be kinder to me than the contemporary media or for that matter the opposition parties in parliament.”

Timeline

May 2004 Manmohan Singh chosen as prime minister after shock Congress election victory over Bharatiya Janata party.

July 2008 Singh wins crucial confidence vote on Indo-US nuclear deal.

November 2008 Terror attacks on five-star hotels and main train station in Mumbai.

May 2009 Singh and Congress party win re-election with stronger mandate.

March 2011 India initiates penalty proceedings against Vodafone in controversial $2.5bn tax battle. Vodafone denies tax is due.

November 2011 Congress government announces opening of retail businesses to foreign direct investment, but backtracks and “suspends” policy two weeks later.

February 2012 Supreme Court cancels 122 telecom licences issued in 2008 due to alleged irregularities that some claim cost $39bn to the exchequer.

September 2012 Congress government announces opening of retail and aviation to FDI.

India’s Manmohan Singh attacks rival Narendra Modi in parting shot

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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