The Zero PM: Indian voters rapidly losing faith in Manmohan Singh
by Ramtanu Maitra on 24 Feb 2011 2 Comments

Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s statement on 16 February that he is not a “lame-duck prime minister” will go down in history as one of the most ironic from the head of state of a major nation since 1973, when US President Richard Nixon, trying to stonewall the Watergate break-in scandal and facing impeachment, made the famous statement, “I’m not a crook.”


On 17 November 1973, President Nixon, in an hour-long televised question-and-answer session with selected editors, maintained his innocence in the Watergate case and promised to supply more details on his personal finances and more evidence from tapes and presidential documents. Less than ten months later, Nixon had to resign from the presidency. Till his death almost twenty years later, Nixon never convinced the American people that he was not a “crook.”


In a dispatch from New Delhi on 17 February, The Washington Post correspondent Simon Denyer referred to a satirical cartoon that appeared a week before showing the Prime Minister holding up his hands and declaring, “I’m above all this.” The next frame zoomed out to show Singh perched on the bow of the sinking ship of his government, in shark-infested waters representing a string of corruption scandals. The cartoon was appropriate, but Manmohan Singh’s problems go further.


Reeking of corruption


With the stench of corruption reaching the high heavens, Manmohan Singh was ostensibly told to gather a group of carefully hand-picked journalists from the electronic media at his residence at 7 Race Course Road on 16 February. In his opening remarks before this friendly company, Singh said: “An impression has gone around that we are a scam-driven country.” He even went to the extent of trying to blame his difficulties and embarrassments on having to run a coalition that he himself officially organized to stay in power about two years ago. But now he chooses to berate them. That is Manmohan Singh.


India is indeed a scam-driven country presided over by an “I’m above all this” Prime Minister, or whoever steers him. The level of financial swindles that his men and associates have been involved in during recent years is mind-boggling, but Manmohan Singh does not have the gumption or decency to own up to that. Singh’s orchestrated message issued to the Indian people through the Indian electronic media from his residence on 16 February shows India’s Prime Minister has neither authority nor responsibility. That makes him not a “lame duck”, but a duck without feet, willingly manoeuvred from behind by others.


The ruling UPA, a mish-mash coalition of parties who are only interested in being close to the seat of power from where cash flows, has been in power for the last seven years. During this period, India achieved a very high growth rate, but not high enough to match the rate at which food prices rose and are continuing to rise.


A clear statement


This “achievement” that the World Bank-trained Manmohan Singh and his World Bank-trained major domo Montek Singh Ahluwalia dish out to the people has not quite won their hearts and minds. The result of the state assembly elections in Bihar, announced in the third week of November, was a clear statement for the Congress party that Manmohan Singh represents at the Centre. And there are indications that the electorate of adjacent states will make more such statements in the coming months.


In Bihar, out of 243 assembly seats, the Congress party won only four - a performance so abysmal that Indian analysts have not even tried to analyse it. By contrast, the coalition of a local Janata Dal (United) party and the national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) garnered 206 of those seats to form the state government.


But Bihar may not be an exception; it could very well prove to be a trend, and possibly a statement. The state of West Bengal is expected to go to the polls in May, and various political parties will be contesting for 294 Assembly seats. In this state, the puny Congress party is playing a distant second-fiddle and trying to catch up with the Trinamool Congress (TC), which seems to be the party of choice of the state electorate. As of this writing, it is not clear how many seats TC will allow the Congress to contest, but current projections indicate that the Congress party may not have more than twenty winners.


Next year, in the largest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, where 403 assembly seats will be contested, the Congress party is running a poor fourth. How few of these 403 seats the Congress party will be able to win is anyone’s guess. Some estimates show the Congress party may not garner more than twenty seats.


What does all this mean? It means that the party in power that has achieved such phenomenal growth will not be able to win more than 40-some seats out of the 940 being contested. These three states located in the fertile Ganges plain are the most populous in the Union, and together they represent almost 30 per cent of India’s parliamentary seats.


Abandoning the poor?


So, the question is: why are people rejecting the rule of Manmohan Singh en masse? Is it because of the salting away of huge sums of money by those in power and their sweethearts? Is it because no one in power has the courage to say that he or she is responsible for the swindles carried out during their watch? Or, is it because hundreds of millions of the poor in India who spend 80 to 90 per cent of their earnings to get two square meals a day feel that New Delhi is allowing food prices to skyrocket week after week? There is all that, but there could be more.


India has at least 500 million people whose income is just enough to feed the family, with nothing to spare. With the price of staples (wheat and rice) showing a fifteen/ twenty-five per cent rise in just the past year, these millions have now been put to the sword. Some other agricultural products, such as sugar, show an even steeper rise, but the poor in India have long stopped being major consumers of such products, because they simply cannot afford them.


That is the reality, and it is ugly. Those who took control of governing this nation of 1.2 billion people were fully aware that throughout the 1920s and during the better part of the present decade, India’s agriculture sector was growing at a paltry rate of 2.0-2.5 per cent. No one in the top leadership in New Delhi has the courage to address the issue the way it must be addressed, but they were often heard parroting each other, that India has achieved the status of the second-fastest-growing economy of the world.


The facts are right in front of these leaders: 60 per cent of India’s population depends on the agricultural sector and its offshoots to stay alive. A 2.0-2.5 per cent growth rate for more than a decade of this sector ensures two things: It keeps this huge population permanently poor, and it destroys the future for a majority of India’s next generation. Instead of addressing what should be considered as the key to India’s survival and future success, leaders in New Delhi sing hosannas about the phenomenal growth of information technology, and its direct offshoots, which serve not even one per cent of India’s 1.2 billion-and-growing population. By all definitions, this is criminal negligence, with the potential of leading to deaths of innocent millions.


Achievements squandered


Indian farmers had gone through catastrophic food shortages for ages before Indira Gandhi moved decisively in the 1960s, with the help of the best agro-planners and agro-scientists, to make the country food-secure. That decision saved India from becoming a victim of the carnivorous IMF-World Bank. By the 1980s, India became self-sufficient in food, and the pundits around the world stopped claiming that India would fall apart because of internal upheavals caused by food shortages.


But what Prime Minister Indira Gandhi achieved has been systematically squandered, wittingly or unwittingly, by those who followed her. Today, more than half of rural households (56 per cent) in India are without electricity (source: Ministry Of Power’s brochure on Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutkaran Yojana). “Over half of rural households” means almost 500 million people. In addition to the health problems that such a condition creates, New Delhi is basically cutting off its own feet by not allowing the next generation of Indians, who will have to become the leaders of the nation, to receive the absolute necessity: adequate education.


Such denial of electrical power, one of the most important ingredients to sustain human life, leads to other distortions so visible in rapidly-growing India. Every day, India’s mega-cities swell with new migrants, mostly unskilled, from rural areas, who come seeking a better life. They come to cities like Bombay, Bangalore and Calcutta, which are now home to skyscrapers, wealth, and power.


Without a concentrated focus on lifting the agriculture sector through infrastructural and other investments, the entire country, not just its current government, will lose its feet.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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