India's Prime Minister Feels Lash of Faint Praise

Time magazine created a stir in India this week by putting India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on the cover of its Asian edition, calling him "The Underachiever."

Locked behind a subscription wall, the article itself was hard to access, but this had the paradoxical effect of allowing every critic of India's beleaguered prime minister to project his or own civic and economic discontents onto the provocative cover line, whether anger over rising prices and corruption, distress over a slowing economy, annoyance at red tape and paralysis in government and cronyism in business, impatience with some of the more disruptive partners in the coalition government, or annoyance at Singh's apparent lack of power within his own party, the Indian National Congress. The cover provided a single point of focus for discussion in the Indian print media -- and even more, prominently, on television, with its love of a good story generated at no cost and its two- and three-minute rhetorical wars -- and allowed every Indian news website to recycle the question in its own Internet polls.

It's hard for this writer, at least, to judge the prime minister as harshly as some critics, if for no other reason than the fact that he shares power with -- or perhaps more accurately devolves those powers to -- two other figures in his party who enjoy comparable influence, but without much accountability. These are the president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, who in 2004 installed Singh as prime minister after the Congress surprisingly emerged as the single largest party in the general elections of that year, and her son Rahul Gandhi, presently a general secretary in the party and very likely the party's candidate for prime minister in the next general election in 2014.

Singh labors, that is, under the weight of a party that has fallen into a state of decadence, a shadow of the organization that, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, orchestrated the Indian struggle for independence, put its faith in democracy, crafted the excellent constitution of the new Indian state, and enjoyed power for almost three decades before being voted out for the first time.

What holds the party together today is also what ails it: an emasculating dependence on a figurehead, or heads, that has crystallized over time (like the practice of caste) into a perverse and damaging tradition, one that leans toward the safety and suffocation of a predestined order over the ferment and disruption of a genuinely democratic framework. Nehru, India's first and to date perhaps most distinguished prime minister, could never have imagined when he was president of the Congress Party that control of the organization would pass down after him to his daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), and then after her sudden assassination to her son, Rajiv Gandhi -- and then, a few years after Rajiv's own assassination, to his wife, Sonia -- and thereon, presumably, to Rahul, the son of Rajiv and Sonia.

The youngest Gandhi has now spent several years trying to finesse the contradictions involved in making the party more "meritocratic" from a position of power he enjoys mainly because of his last name. His main attraction, in a parliament packed with geriatrics, is said to be his youth (he is in his early 40s, and currently head of the Indian Youth Congress). But it should be emphasized that this refreshing attribute, said to be positively co-related to idealism, is actually one he shares with a few hundred million Indians, who are sure to be offered none of the privileges he enjoys.

Partly by chance and partly from sloth, the Congress Party has perfected a model, now widely replicated in Indian politics, of a party that is democratic on the outside and dynastic on the inside -- a kind of democratic feudalism that has also mushroomed in other parts of south Asia, such as Pakistan with its Bhutto dynasty. Thus it has come to be that every congressman, when he or she wakes up, expects to see the sun rising in the east -- and, lower down, a Gandhi at the head of the party (and with figures like Singh, then, serving as worker bees for the larger cause of continuity).

Always slightly left of center, the party's historic commitment (often rightly criticized for its excesses) to socialism, moderated somewhat by its acceptance in 1991 that the Indian economy was in need of deregulation, has come to seem in the current term as no more than a cynical investment of taxpayers' money into grand redistributive schemes that farm out enough freebies to ensure a return to power in 2014. In some quarters -- including in Singh's own view, as expressed in an interview this week in the Hindustan Times -- this is labelled "the healing touch," but without a commitment to fiscal prudence and economic reform it seems more like a kind of complacent paternalism, one that mirrors the current maternalism of the president of the Congress Party. (There is an essay waiting to be written on parenthood as the model for the relationship between the Indian politician and the Indian voter.) As an economist -- and as of last month also the finance minister -- Singh's failure to balance the books is acutely provoking to his critics, and perhaps acutely embarrassing to the prime minister himself. Even so, Singh has left himself open to criticism by his own dependence on the party high command. Uniquely among Indian prime ministers, he has never won an election to the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha.

The Time magazine cover and the reaction to it in India produced a bit of inspired satire from the Wall Street Journal's Paul Beckett, who wrote in a mock "report,'' one that poked fun not only at the Congress but also at the persistent Indian tendency to see the conspiracy of a "foreign hand" in any criticism of the country:

An unnamed spokesman for 10 Janpath, home of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, issued a statement that read in part: “Since 2004, Dr. Singh’s standing instructions have been to do as little as possible while keeping the seat warm for when Sri Rahul Gandhi plucks up the courage to assume the position that is his by dynastic right. In this regard, we would say that Dr. Singh has not only achieved, he has possibly overachieved by a tad, to the point where we wish he would actually do something until Rahul-ji makes up his mind.”

The editors of the Hindu, Times of India, Business Standard, and the Hindustan Times issued a joint statement that said: “It is high time that the Indian media stopped paying such close attention to what weekly magazines in western countries say about our leaders and about our great nation. We, as representatives of the national media, need to have more self-belief. And our citizens need to move beyond the era where what someone outside India says about us is taken more seriously than what is said about us inside India. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near that time so we gave prominent mention to the Time story on all of our front pages Monday.”

The editor of Time Asia said in a statement: “Who wrote that headline? I’m giving them a raise.”

And on the website Project Syndicate, the Indian economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya wrote, in "The Bell Tolls For India's Congress Party":

Brand-name politics is increasingly at a discount in India, much as it is in the United States. Like the Kennedy and Bush brands, the Nehru-Gandhi label has lost its luster in India.

That is partly a function of rapidly changing demographics. Individuals born after 1975 now account for a very large proportion of the electorate. For these voters, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are merely historical figures, and are a distant memory even for many voters born before 1975. It is not surprising that Rahul Gandhi proved unable to bring the Congress a victory in a recent election in a constituency that historically had been a bastion of support for his family.

Indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi condominium that has dominated Indian politics has itself undermined the party’s survival prospects by making it immensely difficult for it to recruit and develop new leaders. It is common knowledge that, for the last eight years, Sonia Gandhi has exercised virtually total control within the party. As a result, no rival to Rahul Gandhi has emerged.

Singh, meanwhile, defended his government's record, and asserted in a long interview in the Hindustan Times that things were not as bleak economically as the prevailing sentiment suggested:

Legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action. More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that. [...]

The logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people. [...]

Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party's will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively. My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.

We might end by moving from history, politics and economics into the realm of art, and the Indian poet Rabindra Swain's recent poem "The Prime Minister." Swain interprets the dilemma of the prime minister through the lens of Hindu mythology, and the legend of the god Shiva, whose throat turns blue after he drinks the poison churned up by a battle between the gods and the demons, in order that the world be saved from devastation. "In the Prime Minister is the triumph," writes Swain, channeling a famous image from the Upanishads, "Of the bird who himself does not eat/But watches the other one take tiny pecks." It is the triumph, that is, of virtue and self-restraint, the kind that would befit a sage or a renunciate -- but not a politician.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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