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Jun 17, 2013, 12.11 PM IST | Source: Firstpost.com

Why Manmohan Singh failed: neta who remained a babu

Several answers have been suggested, including the division of powers between him and party President Sonia Gandhi, which ensures that all key decisions need her okay. Another explanation is coalition compulsions.

Why Manmohan Singh failed: neta who remained a babu
R Jagannathan
Firstpost.com

Why is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh widely seen as a failure, at least in UPA-2?

Several answers have been suggested, including the division of powers between him and party President Sonia Gandhi, which ensures that all key decisions need her okay. Another explanation is coalition compulsions.

However, there is now one more reason being adduced for Manmohan Singh's failure: he has surrounded himself with thinkers instead of doers.

Writing in Business Standard on Saturday, TN Ninan has this to say. "The Prime Minister has plenty of advisors, but is desperately short of doers. He has the benefit of wisdom from the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council, the National Knowledge Commission, the National Skill Development Council, the National Advisory Council, the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council, the National Innovation Council, and the National Security Advisory Board, besides plenty of individual advisors, with and without prefixes. That's a lot of people giving advice, writing reports and occupying sundry "bhavans" and multi-acre homes in Lutyens' Delhi. But look for the doers in the system, and they are scarce. The Delhi Metro's E Sreedharan stands out as a rare exception, perhaps alongside Nandan Nilekani. As for the rest, the less said the better."

Now with Sreedharan retired, and Nilekani's mandate at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) being curtailed (the UIDAI is still to get parliamentary sanction, and is anyway mandated to cover only half the country), Manmohan Singh effectively has one doer less and a half-doer on his payroll.

If Atal Behari Vajpayee managed to achieve something, it's because he had some doers in his team. Among them: Arun Shourie, who managed to get disinvestment moving and the new telecom policy. And he had BC Khanduri, who as Surface Transport Minister managed to get the national highways programme off to a spectacular start. Even Sreedharan was a Vajpayee appointee to the Delhi Metro.

However, there is another way of seeing this. One needs to ask: why does Manmohan Singh have more advisors and non-action people on his team than doers?

The answer may be: he himself is not a doer. He is just a file-pusher. He is a bureaucrat who has risen far above his level of competence. This is why Sonia Gandhi had chosen him as PM in 2004, because he would listen to her like a bureaucrat. Give advice, and then let her take a decision.

This is why Singh was successful under Narasimha Rao despite being called finance minister, he was essentially a glorified finance secretary who proposed and Rao disposed.

A bureaucrat will not be comfortable with anyone who is not another bureaucrat or else the lines of authority can blur. There is no one to tell him, "Yes, Prime Minister". This is why Manmohan Singh never had a great equation with Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister. Mukherjee was always a minister, never a bureaucrat. And Singh had served under him. Their relationship was not that of boss and subordinate, but bureaucratic PM and Super Minister. The power relationship was skewed against Singh.

For the same reason, Singh was earlier uncomfortable with P Chidambaram, too. As a proud Chettiar from Tamil Nadu, Chidambaram was always someone who could give orders and get things done. He suffers no fools. Despite outward deference, Chidambaram does not see himself as beholden to the PM for his job, nor does he think he needs the PM's support for anything. His current authority for reforms comes directly from Sonia Gandhi, and not the PM.

On the other hand, if you look at the people in various committees and "bhavans", nearly all are people who would accept Manmohan Singh's bureaucratic authority. Montek Singh Ahluwalia was one before Singh brought him to the Planning Commission. C Rangarajan was one, and headed the Reserve Bank in his time. Nandan Nilekani came to the UIDAI from the private sector, where deference to bureaucracy is a learnt virtue. Sam Pitroda at the Knowledge Commission was close to the Gandhi family in Rajiv Gandhi's time, and S Ramadorai as the PM's advisor on skill-building is from Tata Consultancy Services.

The last word on Singh should be given to Bibek Debroy, who summed up Manmohan Singh's essential strength as the ability to survive all bosses, and not pushing for what he really believed in. Pointing out that UPA-1 was Left-wing in orientation, Debroy, writing in The Economic Times some time ago,  says Singh could still have pushed for reforms in public expenditure and social spending which would not have been opposed even by Sonia Gandhi. But he did nothing.

Says Debroy: "Why did MMS choose not to push such reforms? Why, as PM, did he not insist on key individuals in key social sector portfolios during UPA-1? That demand would have also passed muster with 10, Janpath. The point is, multiple power centres or coalition compulsions do not explain MMS not pushing for key changes. MMS opted for the path of least resistance. Good bureaucrats often do that."

Debroy's conclusion: "MMS will most likely be judged by history as one of India's most ineffective Prime Ministers. But there's another judgment on MMS that's equally valid and important. Manmohan Singh is the best Cabinet secretary India never had."

As this writer has noted before, Singh's failure validates the Peter Principle, which says every man gets promoted to his level of incompetence. Manmohan Singh the super-bureaucrat failed as PM because he had been promoted once too often and reached his level of incompetence.

 The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group

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