A Politician called Manmohan Singh

One of the ‘selling points’ for the neo- liberal reforms initiated during Narasimha Rao’s years of prime minister- ship was that these reforms were worked out and led by a non- politician- Dr Manmohan Singh. Indeed, his continued projection as a non- politician- and specifically as a professional economist- has been seen to provide a legitimacy for the neo- liberal offensive, though sometimes it has been used by his political opponents to attack his credentials in holding a political post.

Both of these perspectives are flawed, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Manmohan Singh’s professional background as a technocrat cannot be reason enough to see him as a non- politician.

In a recent article in the EPW, Mitu Sengupta provides, an account of how the reforms of 1991 were not the result of an intellectual breakthrough or of making economics independent of politics, but the result of a protracted struggle for power within the ruling establishment. She traces the conflict to the Nehru- Patel divergence on role of state and the market to the late 1960s and then the 1980s. According to her account, a “left” and a “right” have existed in various states of conflict since Nehru’s years, but they were able to force a “win” in 1991 because of multiple factors including the collapse of Eastern Europe, India’s unstable political situation in the late 1980s and the resulting balance of payment crisis in 1991 that forced an immediate reliance on international financing agencies that got into the act of enforcing a rightward shift in the country’s economic priorities.

Their initial ascent, however, was the consequence of a narrow political victory– pulled off by a small segment of the political-bureaucratic elite, through some dexterous manoeuvres, clever political alliances, and a timely nudge from the IFIs (International Financial Institutions)– at an unusually turbulent moment in India’s economic history. It is no wonder that genuine support for neoliberal reform within the state has remained thin, limited to a small (though undoubtedly powerful) cluster of policy intellectuals in Delhi. This is despite persistent attempts by proponents to “sell the reforms” to policymakers at the state and local levels, and, more ironically, even to many top government officials. In fact, resistance from within the state has remained a particularly distressing problem for proponents. As Virmani laments: “What is not acceptable is internal criticism, sabotage, and worse from within the ruling set-up – this has a much more devastating effect on the credibility of reforms (than questioning by the public)”. Virmani does not, however, attempt to explain the problem, other than by an off-hand reference to the “old ‘crab theory’ of Indians in operation”. The attitude is not surprising.

The depth of alienation within the state is too easily misjudged when paradigm shift is viewed, in upbeat form, as the product of cumulative learning among ideologically neutral and nonpartisan experts. Dissension is seen as arising from ignorance or opportunism, not reasonable intellectual concern, and resistors are treated as obstructionists, not legitimate political opponents. Indeed, such apolitical explanations of the reforms can prove to be enormously politically expedient.

This paper has argued that the reforms initiated in 1991 were borne out of prolonged contestation among competing factions within the policy elite over different explanations of past policy errors and different proposals for change. It is suggested that far from being the one, inescapable conclusion to the lengthy debates over reform options manifest throughout India’s economic history, the transition to a neoliberal market model was, at best, highly contingent. It was paved upon a largely unforeseen defeat of an alternative economic paradigm, as well an alternative position on the politics of the global order, both of which had been beheld in high regard for decades. In light of this, India’s paradigm shift should be viewed as a political event that might have been eluded under different circumstances, rather than as an historically inexorable phenomenon that holds sway without meaningful alternative or resistance.

A corollary of this line of thought is that the elevation of a former member of this technocracy to the post of prime minister- even if accidentally- has only served to strengthen India’s “neo- con” coup. Indian politics seems to have got stuck between the Tweedledum and the Tweedledee of the UPA and the NDA. Whatever the CPM and its B team, the CPI’s dogmatic positions be, they seem to be the only one that are providing a counter balance to the neo- con agenda, in words if not in deeds.

The victory of the economic Right in 1991 has resulted in a curious situation where, while there is a ritual change in the ruling coalitions at the Center, the economic priorities have remained more or less in the same direction. A few concessions during the current UPA rule can be attributed to the political thrashing that the previous NDA government got and which was taken as a lesson that the UPA has sought to learn, albeit in a half- hearted manner. The continuing marginalization of left leaning economists like Arjun Sengupta within the ruling establishment clearly betrays the UPA’s preference for a different set of people, though it is true that there has been a step back from in light of the 1996 downfall of the Congress and the 2004 fall of the BJP- led NDA government, both governments having demonstrated commitment to an unswerving agenda of neo- liberalism.

The only crucial difference between the Narasimha Rao Congress and the BJP- led UPA governments (I am inclined to see Rao as sharing not only the economic but also the communal agenda of the Right and therefore closer to the BJP) has been a lowering in communal temperature in the country- for which the credit deservedly goes to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and not to the ‘non- political’ Singh. There has even been a half- hearted attempt to salvage the ‘Left hand’ of the state, though the figures quoted below would look less impressive if expressed in percentage terms:

According to official data, the plan outlay for health has increased from Rs.6,983 crore in 2003-04 to Rs.16, 534 crore in 2008-09. In the field of education, the outlay has expanded from Rs.7,024 crore in 2003-04 to Rs.34,000 crore in 2008-09. The allocation for education for the eleventh five year plan period, to commence next year, is an unprecedented Rs.2,75,000 crore.(link)

Whatever be Singh’s credentials as a mainstream politician- he lost terribly in the only elections that he ever contested, that too from one of the most affluent constituencies (South Delhi)- his skills as politician of the Right are admirable. The sudden swerve to th e Right during his tenure as a Finance Minister in the Rao years as well as the continuing and firm drift to the Right during his current tenure as the prime minister has to be attributed to him being a very shrewd and successful politician.

The UPA’s continuing inability to project a center- left leader opting instead for one who has over his nearly two decades of presence in the power structures demonstrated an unswerving commitment to the Right means that it will be rendered increasingly irrelevant even in the next general elections and beyond- going the inglorious way of the New Labour in England.

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