A billion people and India cannot produce just one leader for the times? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been in office for two terms but rarely in power during that decade.
He has never held elected office, is a living lie in claiming an Upper House seat (itself a violation of the Westminster convention that the prime minister must be an elected member of Parliament’s Lower House) from India’s northeastern state of Assam when everyone knows he was born in what is now Pakistan and hails from Delhi, and has never been comfortable in any significant public speaking role.
Any political leader is in trouble when he becomes the object of ridicule in jokes popular across the country. In Delhi it became quite common for seminar chairs to ask people to turn their cellphones to MMS (the prime minister’s initials) mode.
Another story has it that the prime minister’s dentist pleaded that he could not do his job if the patient refused to open his mouth.
Starting with the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games fiasco as a showpiece shambles, Brand India has suffered a steady loss of global market value. In the fullness of time, Singh’s 10-year tenure may well be judged to have been independent India’s locust years as a personally amiable but politically ineffectual prime minister presided over an increasingly obvious paralysis of governance on every front, political and economic, domestic and international.
As the reform agenda was neglected during the good years, the economy stuttered, job creation stalled, inequality increased, the share of manufacturing and agriculture in GDP fell, the rupee collapsed, infrastructure creaked and crumbled, state governments exercised veto power over crucial foreign policy initiatives on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, mega-corruptions mushroomed and social ills (dowry deaths, caste and communal violence, brutal gang rapes) festered.
Singh floats above it all with neither the drive and determination to address them nor the dignity and self-awareness to resign.
On March 3, India blacklisted yet another foreign firm, Rolls-Royce, for having allegedly paid bribes to win contracts. At some stage it might register the core corruption problem is not foreign firms but Indian officials, generals and politicians.
The standard, almost copyrighted official Indian technique of resolving any thorny issue or conflict is to out-wait the problem until it dies from sheer exhaustion. Having outlasted it, the government claims victory in outcome and vindication for its strategy.
This can be done through neglect, commissions of inquiry, committees to study the problem, or other “yes minister”-style tricks of the official trade. This tried and tested technique is now running into two problems: First, the pace of modern life is such that the problems are multiplying and intensifying faster than the time available to let them run their course.
Second, the new generation of Indians lack the patient resignation of their parents and grandparents. Instead, they demand immediate answers and instant gratification.
The Foreign Ministry had been pressing the Finance Ministry for more than a year to consider that India-based domestic staff employed by diplomats in overseas missions could cause difficulties if not made full-fledged civil servants. For cost reasons, the bean counters demurred, and a major crisis blew up in relations with the United States over India’s deputy consul-general in New York on this very issue.
The Indian Navy has long been sounding alarms about the ailing strength and condition of its submarine fleet and the increasingly urgent need to refurbish and bolster capabilities. In 2007 it put in a request for six new stealth submarines. Between them the defense and finance ministries are yet to sign off on the request.
Until 2013, India’s 15-strong submarine fleet comprised 10 Russian Kilo-class vessels, 4 German HDW submarines and one Russian-leased nuclear powered vessel. In 2013 only six were operational at any given time. The navy faced problems in maintaining the seaworthiness of aging vessels, let alone fretting about modernization and new acquisitions for dealing with threats of the future.
In seven months, the navy’s ships have suffered 12 mishaps. Last August the INS Sindhurakshak (Defender of the Sindh) blew up and sank in Mumbai harbor, killing 18 personnel.
The week before last a fire aboard the INS Sindhuratna (Jewel of the Sindh) killed two more and the navy chief resigned. The civilian and political brass accepted his resignation with alacrity, deflecting attention from their own responsibility.
The most abject story of all concerns two Italian marines who, on escort duty aboard an oil tanker against pirates, were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard for mistakenly killing two unarmed Indian commercial fishermen on Feb. 15, 2012.
There were jurisdictional squabbles over whether the incident occurred in open seas or coastal waters. Italy agreed to a trial in India after the latter’s Foreign Ministry gave formal assurance that the marines would not face the death penalty. In March 2013, India set up a special court so the trial could be held speedily. Then, in defiance of every grain of common sense, the Home Ministry filed charges under anti-piracy laws , which do attract capital punishment.
Unsurprisingly the government, media and people of Italy went ballistic. The Italian ambassador was recalled for consultations, and the Indian ambassador in Rome summoned for a dressing down. Rome protested that the charges amounted to Italy being declared a terrorist state, and India’s own Supreme Court, irritated by the government changing its mind half a dozen times over the relevant law for trying the marines, called for a formal submission of which law applied. Delhi then dropped the charges under the anti-piracy law.
India lacked the clearsightedness and courage to agree to Italy’s initial offer of international arbitration and generous compensation for those killed. Now the issue is entangled in general election politics in which one party leader’s Italian origin is a powerful complication.
And where has the prime minister been during this thoroughly avoidable diplomatic train wreck that threatens to bring the country’s legal system into global disrepute and damage relations with a friendly government, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In MMS mode, of course. It would be interesting to know just what he thinks the job requires beyond being a sycophant toward the first family. Little wonder that in a Pew Research poll late last month, people preferred the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party to the ruling Congress Party 63-19 percent, and 78 percent held favorable views of BJP leader Narendra Modi.
Ramesh Thakur is professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.