During the run up to US Presidential elections, The New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked in an interview to assess both the candidates and their running mates. Brooks's was a candid assessment where he decried the anti-intellectualism of the Republicans. Sarah Palin, according to him, "represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party". While he had good things to say about John McCain and Joe Biden, he praised President elect Barack Obama for his intellect and his skills at "social perception". He recounts his meeting with him a couple of years ago where he finds him restless and cranky. Out of the blue, Brooks asks Obama: "Ever read a guy called Reinhold Niebuhr"? Obama replied in the affirmative and for the next 20 minutes he spoke on Niebuhr's delicate thought process based on an idea that you must use "power even if it corrupts you". Needless to say, Brooks was dazzled.
The purpose of visiting Brooks' interaction with Obama was to assert the importance of having an intellectual with good social perception skills to manage a country and economy in a crisis. Obama, according to Brooks, besides being an intellectual himself, was also open to good advice. He surrounded himself with some of the best guys in business to provide comfort to those who were skeptical about his lack of administrative experience. Quite clearly, he wagered that his sharp intelligence would help him compensate for wisdom that comes from experience.
In Manmohan Singh we have an intellectual who also has years of experience of being in the government. He enjoys the respect of many world leaders for his learning and understated ways. There are some leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have displayed their fondness for him by endorsing many of our requests when it comes to bilateral ties. Outgoing US President, too, loves Singh. A feeling that has been publicly reciprocated!
Prime Minister Singh's performance, though, has been very bureaucratic. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he has spent so many years in the government that it has stifled and smothered his originality. It is difficult to recall an original idea since he has been in power. The entire economic reform process that he initiated in 1991 has quite evidently been inspired by World Bank-IMF prescription. Before he started swearing by neo-liberal prescriptions to cure India, he was suggesting just the opposite in his famous South Commission report. The civilian nuclear deal with USA, with which Manmohan Singh would forever be associated with by history, came as an offer from Washington. Jury is still out whether the deal would be beneficial for the country.
This reluctance to say something original that represents the view of an emerging economy that has millions of people living in abysmal poverty showed up when the prime minister visited Washington to sign the nuclear deal. Incidentally, his visit coincided with the Wall Street collapse. As an eminent economist and head of a billion strong nation, it was expected that he would have a point of view that would find expression somewhere in the world media. Iranian leader Ahmedinijad, Russian PM Vladimir Putin, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, all had something to contribute to the raging debate on the US-induced crisis, but there was not a whisper from our PM. It seemed as if India had nothing to say save for parroting, that "our fundamentals are strong and that we are insulated from the credit crisis".
A few weeks later when the fundamentals began to look shaky, our government interventions were similar to that of the first world and not that of an emerging economy. India has no business to go into a demand recession as long as people do not have a roof over their head, a job and two square meals. And there are millions who don't. Instead of looking for fiscal incentives to boost demand and kick start large projects to create employment, attempts were made to boost the stock market, where a sliver of the country's humongous population is involved.
There was no attempt on the part of the PM to look at ways of finding out why government programmes do not get funding till a couple of months before the next budget is to be presented. As an insider, Singh should have had a lot of things to change in this country including fighting organised corruption, but he could not show the necessary courage. Maybe the strength and the courage to air your ideas stems from the mandate and endorsement leaders get from the masses. Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Obama are a case in point. What Singh is missing is a stirring democratic thumbs up of a Lok Sabha victory. Maybe then he would be able to speak his original mind.