Manmohan at 75: India’s unlikely man of destiny

By Amulya Ganguli

Manmohan Singh must be aware on the occasion of his 75th birthday Wednesday that he is involved in the process of making history.

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Few would have thought that such a mild-mannered man with no political base, who has to depend on a restrictive electorate to get into parliament, would play such a pivotal role in Indian politics.

But it is probably because he doesn’t have to play a populist game that he has been able to initiate a fundamental change in the Congress policies – bidding goodbye to the party’s adherence to socialism and non-alignment.

The boldness of this transformation is evident from the fact that both these concepts were the gift of none other than Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and one of the party’s towering leaders who was second only to Mahatma Gandhi.

As such, ever since the party’s 1955 declaration in favour of a ‘socialistic pattern of society’, and endorsement of the Nehru government’s policy of equidistance from the two superpowers of the time, these two outlooks defined the Indian polity.

It was left to the soft-spoken economist from Cambridge to begin the process of distancing India from both these policies. Even if the dilution of socialistic precepts began in the time of Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, when he became prime minister in 1984, the impetus was given by Manmohan Singh in 1991 when he was finance minister.

As Manmohan Singh has admitted, the credit for taking the first steps towards economic reforms goes to the prime minister of the time, P.V. Narasimha Rao, whom he recently called a ‘rishi’ or a sage. But it was an unsure beginning, which was brought to an abrupt end by the Congress defeat in 1996.

The country had to wait for eight years before the party returned to power, and a quirk of circumstance ensured that it was Manmohan Singh, and not Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who became prime minister.

It is on such accidents of history that seminal changes depend. But for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s xenophobic campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, she would have become prime minister in 2004. In that event, she is likely to have played safe by following the traditional party policies crafted by Nehru.

This is all the more likely because the Congress then was uneasy about LPG – liberalization, privatisation and globalisation – as the economic reforms were derisively called. It was customary at the time to attribute Narasimha Rao’s defeat to the pursuit of pro-rich policies.

Non-alignment, too, based on distrust and dislike of America, would have in all likelihood continued to determine foreign policy. The fact that the Congress was dependent on the Left to survive in office would have also curtailed its options to experiment, even if it was in a mood to do so.

But fate had evidently decided that Manmohan Singh would be India’s man of destiny at that uncertain juncture. Even when he took charge, while an incredulous party looked on (and his adversaries in the Congress sharpened their knives and waited for their opportunity to strike), few expected that he would take up his unfinished agenda of 1991-96 with such gusto.

But even as the Left fretted and fumed, the first hint of Manmohan Singh’s intentions was evident from his choice of P. Chidambaram as finance minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia (called a ‘World Bank man’ by veteran communist Jyoti Basu) as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission – both known for their pro-reforms views.

But it isn’t only the pursuit of the market-oriented policies that has angered sections of the Left (based mainly in New Delhi and often called ‘rootless intellectuals’). What has disconcerted and even shocked them is India’s growing proximity to their bugbear, the US, which is evident in the nuclear deal.

And even more unnerving for the communists is the determination Manmohan Singh has displayed in selling the deal. He has been helped, of course, by the support extended by Sonia Gandhi, which has silenced the few ‘socialist’ dissenters in the party. But the fact that the prime minister hasn’t wavered despite the prospect of the government having to go for an early election has shown that he can be tough if he wants to.

There is little doubt now that the country will go to the polls early next year since the Left will have no option but to withdraw support if the deal is formalised, as it is likely to be. Nor is there any doubt that it is the comrades who will suffer an erosion of their influence while the Congress is likely to gain, even if it doesn’t secure a majority of its own.

While the communists will pay the price for their dogmatic intransigence, the Congress gains are likely since its policies are in tune with the mood of the times, especially among India’s growing middle class. The latter no longer see any virtue in Marxism or in ‘blind anti-Americanism’, as even the communist Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said in an unusual criticism of his New Delhi-based comrades.

According to present indications, therefore, Manmohan Singh’s stature can only grow as the Indian economy continues to prosper and its foreign policy reflects its position as one of the six major powers of the 21st century – the US, the European Union, Russia, China, Japan and India.

(Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached at [email protected])