India’s economy grows mainly in the night, some say, when the government is asleep. If every economic prospect pleases, India’s politics can be vile.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flattered in his first term only to deceive in the second. His government has been drifting rudderless, with critical institutional reforms shelved, deflected and rejected.

Two recent events confirm that all the hype notwithstanding, India remains a Third World country with delusions of global grandeur.

On Dec. 9, a fire in a state-of-the-art private hospital in Kolkata killed more than 90 people, mostly patients. The high death toll was due to the unprofessional management practices and governance arrangements.

Just the week before, Singh’s government had buckled under fierce pressure from coalition allies and the opposition and postponed the long-awaited opening of the retail sector to foreign investment and international competition. The losers will be the Indian consumer and economy. A complacent India risks sleepwalking its way back to irrelevance.

As 2012 begins, India confronts multiple crises of slowing growth, falling investment, rising inflation and widening inequality. Deregulating the retail sector should have been the opening salvo in the assault on big-ticket items in India’s badly stalled economic reform.

Instead, India’s dysfunctional politics has been highlighted with the centers of power in the ruling government and party out of alignment, opportunistic and ideological opponents of economic reform emboldened, foreign investors disenchanted and citizens confused.

Eight sets of political considerations threaten to derail India’s manifest destiny despite economic indicators trending north.

(1) As Norman Lamont famously said of John Major, Singh is in office but not in power. Party supremo Sonia Gandhi wields power behind the scenes without responsibility or accountability for government policy and performance. After the 2004 elections, Gandhi could have become prime minister with a credible claim to have received the people’s mandate but offered the post to Singh. He thus began without independent political authority. Those with political ambitions attached themselves to Gandhi, sometimes even to the extent of disrespecting Singh.

(2) Singh was handicapped by being a nominated member of the Upper House. Never having been elected by the people, he lacks the core skills of a political leader and the means of engaging with constituents to check the pulse of politics. Sometimes he seems to lack the stomach for wheeling and dealing and brokering agreements among different factions and interests.

Singh helped to improve his party performance’s in the 2009 elections. But even then his capacity to assert himself as prime minister was circumscribed by his age, the very firm grip of Gandhi on the party, and the palpable expectation that he was but a “seat-warmer” for heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi. The latter has had opportunities aplenty to show political leadership skills, but to date has either failed to seize them or, in some instances, performed such as to feed rather than settle doubts about his ability to lead the country.

(3) Democratic governance gives a human face to structural adjustment policies and facilitates the achievement of the necessary social compromises between capital and labor, efficiency and equity, and growth and equality. Even while conferring political legitimacy, democracy greatly complicates the government’s capacity to make and enforce tough decisions.

(4) The legitimacy of India’s political democracy is being corroded with the criminalization of politics and the capture of parliamentary representation by kith and kin of incumbent lawmakers. Because of the notoriously slow judicial process, indicted Members of Parliament rarely face imminent conviction that would disqualify them from office.

Should India legislate quotas for women in Parliament, most likely they would be filled by the wives, daughters and daughters-in-law of sitting MPs.

(5) Pandering to religious and caste minorities has become deeply embedded in Indian politics, with the result that caste identity is more firmly entrenched with every passing year. Most parties treat minorities as ATMs for collecting votes.

(6) Corruption corrodes the legitimacy of the political system. Although Singh is an honorable exception personally, his tolerance threshold for corrupt Cabinet colleagues has been high.

(7) The reality of coalition politics has shrunk Singh’s political space. Since 1989, the federal government has been either a minority or coalition government, dependent for continuance on the support of a number of minor parties whose political base rarely extends beyond one province or region and whose competence and probity is suspect.

In his recent visit to Dhaka, Singh let slip a historic opportunity to upgrade bilateral relations and reward a Bangladeshi prime minister who has put her political credibility on the line by risking good relations with her giant neighbor.

Why? Because, just two days before the scheduled visit, coalition ally Mamata Banerjee, head of the West Bengal government, rebelled against the carefully negotiated Teesta River package.

(8) While China uses political control and the heavy hand of the state to forestall and suppress all challenges and uprisings, India’s conflict resolution tactic of choice is procrastination and indecisiveness to ride out and exhaust insurgencies and popular movements. The pace of events and the scale of expectations-cum-demands are such that the strategy no longer works. It was tried without success in response to the demand for a separate state of Telengana to be carved out from present-day Andhra Pradesh.

The tactic was a spectacular failure with respect to the social activist Anna Hazare-led movement for curing the country of the cancer of corruption and the government suffered the very public humiliation of having to back down completely.

The activism by India’s highest judiciary as well as civil society movements like Hazare’s have gained traction because of the policy and governance vacuum at the heart of the Singh government. The BJP might well show a progressive, modernizing face if and when it returns to government. But in opposition, it has been fierce and ruthless in relentless negativity: Partisan politics trumps good policy.

The cumulative impact of the several factors does not inspire confidence that the political system will acquire the capacity to make and implement the necessary decisions within the required time. This will be the case especially if both major parties continue to choose septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders.

Given the youth bulge in the demographic profile, India’s people deserve better. Then again, India has an unmatched record of looking opportunity firmly in the eye, turning its back, and walking off resolutely in the opposite direction.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of international relations, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University. (ramesh.thakur@anu.edu.au)

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