Manmohan Singh, India’s 81-year-old prime minister, is averse to meeting the press. In the decade since he entered India’s highest political office, he has participated in just three official interactions with reporters. The last of these occurred on Friday, where Singh, now nearing the end of his second term, announced that he won’t be seeking a third at the general elections later this year. In a way, the press conference amounted to a belated admission of Singh’s political lame-duckhood, which started a long while before he revealed his intentions to retire.
Installed in office by Sonia Gandhi, the reigning head of the Nehru-Gandhi family, in 2004 as a placeholder for her son, Rahul, Singh never really commanded the obedience of his cabinet. “She is the queen,” a senior member of the Congress Party said of Sonia, the party boss, as Singh was sworn into the job. “She is appointing a regent to run some of the government’s business. But it is she who will be in charge.” This arrangement, by which Singh would steer the economy while Sonia handled the messy business of politics, was meant to place India on a steady path of progress. Instead, it shrunk the prime minister’s authority, gave rise to insubordination within the cabinet, and inaugurated an era of almost unfathomable levels of corruption.
Graft has a hoary history in India. As early as 1964, a mere 17 years into India’s independence, the ministry of home affairs reported that corruption had “increased to such an extent that people have started losing faith in the integrity of public administration.” In the decades since, corruption has become a quotidian fact of life: in an ordinary citizen’s interaction with the state, there are few transactions unaccompanied by the demand of a bribe. India’s Soviet-inspired command economy served as a catalyst for malfeasance in the state’s high offices. It spawned a culture of patronage in which senior politicians and bureaucrats showered favoured individuals with lucrative business permits and licences.
But the scams of the time seem almost trivial in comparison to the scandals that erupted on Singh’s watch. One senior politician, Suresh Kalmadi, was placed in judicial custody at Delhi’s notorious Tihar prison on charges of pocketing millions in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Another inmate at the same prison is former communications minister Andimuthu Raja, who stands accused of defrauding the national treasury of $40 billion by selling bandwidth spectrum at grossly undervalued rates. Having scrupulously built a cast-iron reputation for incorruptibility, Singh now has the distinction of presiding over the most corrupt cabinet in Indian history. Singh’s tragedy appears almost karmic when you consider that the avarice that characterizes today’s India would be unthinkable without the policies that he championed two decades ago.
In 1991, when Singh was a little-known civil servant in charge of the university grants commission, India was a nation of 843 million citizens and five million telephone lines. A billion dollars separated it from bankruptcy. The Indian map had rarely looked so vulnerable to another cartographic revision. If the flames of separatism in Punjab seemed to be simmering, the secessionist strife in Kashmir was just peaking. Hindu nationalists, a fringe force in Indian politics a mere decade ago, now occupied the bulk of opposition seats in parliament, poised to banish the secularism that had been the foundational basis of Indian nationalism. Beyond its own imperilled borders, India’s guardian and lodestar, the USSR, was lurching toward disintegration. Moscow shielded India from international criticism for its repression in Kashmir, maintained a crucial $6 billion trade relationship, and supplied defence equipment in exchange for goods. For a generation of Indians, the Soviet Union’s demise upended the certitudes of a lifetime. Visiting India at the time, Ved Mehta felt “a sense of dread about the economic, political, and religious direction of the country which I don’t remember encountering in any of my other visits over the past 25 years.”
The barren rhetoric of economic self-reliance and political nonalignment could no longer conceal India’s deep decay. Here was a colossus of a country that forced its enterprising citizens to make 50 trips to New Delhi and wait three years to import a computer, and where a telephone connection could take up to three years, the production of vacuum cleaners required a license, and the consumption of Coca-Cola was a criminal offense. Inducted into the cabinet as finance minister for his economic expertise, Singh pushed the government to devalue the rupee and embrace austerity. He devised a plan that would substantially deregulate industry, delicense the private sector, pull down the barriers to foreign investment, provide tax concessions to private corporations, slash subsidies to farmers and curb labour activism.
The plan was so radical that members of Singh’s own party, Congress, rose up against it. The Herald, the party’s newspaper, said that his policies were designed to give “the middle-class Indian crispier cornflakes [and] fizzier aerated drinks.” “That,” the paper affirmed, “could never have been the vision of the founding fathers of our nation.” Left-wing members of parliament accused the government of foisting “anti-people” policies on the nation.
But Singh’s policies appeared to be bearing fruit. By the end of 1995, India was attracting more foreign investment than it had managed in the previous four decades combined. Two-way trade with the U.S. alone had grown to $7.3 billion. There were 422 American companies with investments in India. CEOs of major companies streamed in and out of the country. Coca-Cola was back on the subcontinent after 20 years away. George Fernandes, the socialist who had banned Coca-Cola in 1977, stood in parliament and demanded an answer from Singh. “Do we really need Coke? Do we need Pepsi?”
But India was by then already beginning to look like a different country. The middle class became more conspicuously consumptive than ever before. Between them, Indians now drank 2,880 million bottles of fizzy drinks and flew 10 million miles each year. The credit card industry, which barely had a presence in India before Singh’s economic reforms, expanded into a $64 million business by 1996. MasterCard alone grew by 106 percent in India—the highest growth it ever registered in Asia. The creed of this emerging “New India” was captured in the advertising slogans pasted on the billboards of major cities: “I. Me. Mine,” “It’s My Life,” “Keep Up Or Be Left Out,” “Zamana Badal Gaya Hai: Times Have Changed.” The Economic Times, an early supporter of Singh’s reforms, saw its circulation surpass 500,000 from less than a meager 100,000 just four years ago, making it the second-largest business paper in the world. “One of the psychological legacies of the… socialistic era was that the more affluent sections of the society were branded as being rather vulgar and spending money to live well was considered an even greater sin,” one commentator wrote. “Today, that stigma seems to have vanished for many.”
This was Singh’s India, a jubilant and hopeful place. But far away from it, there was another India. Its harrowing realities were captured in a report released by Oxfam. Rural poverty in the reform years had grown from 33 to 48 percent, and a disproportionate burden of Singh’s deficit reduction programme was borne by the poorest. Since the government’s tax concessions to the private sector made it impossible to increase revenues, it resorted to cutting public investment and social expenditure. At the same time more than a dozen of the country’s top 50 private corporations succeeded in avoiding taxes altogether.
Whether Singh’s reforms helped or hurt India remains a matter for dispute. But this much is clear: Singh was an economist, not a politician, and the policies he advocated were enacted only because someone else was prepared to bear the political costs. In the general elections that followed, Congress suffered the worst defeat in its history. When the party returned to power in 2004, Singh was still an apolitical figure who—despite his experience in government—had never won an election in his life. Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origin threatened to become grist for the xenophobic opposition. So she turned to Singh. Since then, Singh has mumbled along inaudibly, knowing power only as a gift bestowed, not as a responsibility earned. His admirers have long claimed that Singh is indifferent to power, even that he brings some kind of dignity to the office of prime minister. If anything, the opposite is true: one has to love power desperately to accept a job merely to be proximate to it.
Singh’s greatest accomplishment in office, the one act that can be described as affirmative, was the civil nuclear agreement he negotiated with the United States. His most abiding failure must be his handling of the terrorist siege of Mumbai in 2008. By avoiding confrontation with Pakistan for fear of inciting a war, Singh actually moved India closer than ever to a conflict with Pakistan. Where once Indians were willing to overlook the gravest acts of terror, today even the slightest transgression provokes a clamour for war. Had Singh demonstrated resolve and forced Pakistan to extradite the men who masterminded the attacks to stand trial in India, it would have diminished the appeal of hardliners in India. There was tremendous sympathy across the world for India’s cause. Singh did nothing to capitalise on it. The only beneficiaries of Singh’s self-wounding “peace initiative” with Pakistan are Hindu nationalists in India and Muslim militants in Pakistan.
Consider the view from New Delhi as Singh prepares to exit office. Substantial portions of rural India are under the control of Maoist insurgents. Rural India remains a hellishly violent place. Urban India is a theater of hideous inequality. In the east, the Chinese army continues periodically to encroach on Indian territory. To the west, the men who masterminded the assault on Mumbai remain at liberty. Even India’s relationship with the U.S., so highly prized by Singh, has abruptly deteriorated over the last month. At home, Hindu nationalists stand poised to assume power in Delhi. “History will judge me kindly,” Singh said on Friday. It’s just as well that Indians are a notoriously ahistorical people. The best Singh can hope for is to be forgotten.