Monday, May 19, 2014

When Decency Was Not Enough ......

The world’s largest democratic election has just come to an end. The result went as expected, Mr Narendra Modhi of the opposition BJP party won. What stunned the world was the extent of his victory. This was a landslide of the highest margins. Mr Modhi needed 272 seats to form a majority – by time polls closed on Friday, 17 May, 2014, Mr Modhi was well ahead in 336 seats. Mr Modhi, who is currently doing his post-election rounds, will be the first Prime Minister of Indian in 30-years to hold such a commanding majority.

The reason for Mr Modhi’s victory is obvious. The ruling UDA alliance with the Congress party at its core had misruled the country for a decade. Economic growth was low. Inflation was high. The currency was trading at all-time lows against major trading partners and throughout the course of the 10-year government, corruption scandals blossomed – one only has to remember how the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games turned into a PR disaster.

To make matters worse, the Congress Party decided to field Rahul Gandhi, the son and grandson of former Prime Ministers. Unfortunately for him, Mr Gandhi represented everything the voters were fed up with (rich, entitled, princeling), while Mr Modhi was everything the voters wanted (rags to riches through hard work and competence).

It really should be no surprise that the UDA alliance lost miserably in this election. India and Indians around are delighted with the result. The stock market and the rupee shot up upon hearing of Mr Modhi’s landslide. Mr Modhi’s task is simple – he has to deliver.

Much is being said about Mr Modhi and the government he will form. There is also plenty of news ink devoted the rise and fall of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its Independence. Nobody seems to have noticed one of most crucial figures of the last decade – the outgoing Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Mr Singh has been a rather pathetic figure. To put it crudely the only people who seem to like Mr Singh are in the BJP – he’s the reason for their landslide win. To the electorate, Mr Singh is the face of an ineffectual government that’s made life harder for ordinary folk. To members of his own party, Mr Singh is the very reason why they’ve been crushed at the polls. Everyone seems to have a bone to pick with him.

While Mr Singh does need to shoulder responsibility for things, one needs to look at how Mr Singh arrived at the state that he did. I remember when Mr Singh became Prime Minister. I had started working for Polaris and everyone in the office was exceedingly happy that he had taken over. One of comments was that this was a brilliant move. The reason was simple – Mrs Gandhi would take care of politics and Mr Singh would take care of the country.

Everyone liked Mr Singh in those days. Unlike the average Indian politician, Mr Singh had a reputation for competence and honesty. Mr Singh is an Oxford trained economist and in 1991, it was Mr Singh, as finance minister 1991, who opened up the Indian Economy and started India onto the road of becoming a serious economy.

So, how did a man who was an effective and highly regarded finance minister become ridiculed as a weak and ineffectual Prime Minister?

I guess the answer lies in the fact that being good at one thing doesn’t make you good at everything. Mr Singh understood finance and economics. When he ran the finance ministry he dealt with what he knew. By contrast, the Prime Minister is expected to know a little about every ministry and above all the Prime Minister needs to take care of the politics.

Mr Singh didn’t have the skills to manage his minister and the politics were simply beyond him. It was the President of the Congress Party, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who ran the politics and it ended up appearing as if he reported to her. For most of his premiership, Mr Singh cut a rather pathetic figure, who seemed to know what needed to be done but didn’t have the arms and the legs to do it. Between his own party, coalition allies and the opposition, Mr Singh was often caught in between a rock and a hard place.

Nobody doubts Mr Singh’s personal integrity. Nobody doubted that Mr Singh had the right qualifications. What he lacked was the hunger to get power and in a politician that is a fatal flaw.

I think of Singapore’s good fortune of having Lee Kuan Yew. In his early days, Mr Lee had the strength of character to surround himself with capable men and he allowed them to get on with it. The biggest blessing for Mr Lee was the fact that he had Dr Goh Keng Swee. The paid complemented each other. Mr Lee took care of politics and Dr Goh built up the institutions. This was a symbiotic relationship. Dr Goh needed Mr Lee to give him the resources of government and to keep vested interest of his back. Mr Lee needed Dr Goh to do the job in such a way that Mr Lee would have the “moral” power in his political battles.

It was also very clear who was boss in this relationship. While Dr Goh Keng Swee did get his views to prevail on many occasions, it was always clear that Mr Lee was the boss. Dr Goh was allowed a free reign to do things because he was a subordinate who didn’t have his eye on the bosses job.

Mr Manmohan Singh had a similar situation when he was the finance minister in 1991. There was a Prime Minster called Narasimha Rao above him. Mr Rao was able to take care of politics while Mr Singh was able to take care of the economy.

It also helped that in 1991, Mr Singh faced a major crisis. India’s balance of payments and she needed to get funding from the IMF. Messers Rao and Singh were able to use this crisis to get the necessary measures passed. This helped to get the Indian economy moving.

Things were very different for him in 2004. Officially he was supposed to run the country. However, he couldn’t do much because the politics was controlled by Sonia Gandhi as the President of Congress. The voters looked to him for leadership but the real levers of power belonged to the leader of the largest party – which was someone else.

Then there was the fact that Mr Singh as Prime Minister, actually presided over one of India’s highest growth rates – seven to eight percent and it even hit an all-time high of nine percent in 2007. As such there was no immediate economic crisis for him to utilize in the same way he had in 1991 and he was never able to use his success to push things further.

Furthermore his early success could be used against him. Think about it – if he could push through nine percent growth in 2007, why couldn’t he do the same in 2014? As far as the average voter was concerned, a large part of the reason was because he never seemed able to reign in the corruption.

As such, Mr Singh ended up limping towards the end of his term. Like John Major in the UK, Mr Singh will probably remembered as a decent man who didn’t understand or love power and was hobbled by a horrible political party.

In a way, Mr Sigh’s premiership also represented one of the best things about India – it was a democratic and tolerant Asian society. He was a Sikh who became Prime Minister in a country where 80 percent of the electorate is Hindu.


However, much as we appreciate honesty and integrity and we admire clever and educated people, it wasn’t enough. While you could admire Mr Singh for never being personally corrupted by the power of his office, you could only despair that such a decent and clever man never knew how to use the power he had to get things done. Decency alone is unfortunately not enough to get things done.