In 17 years as prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru visited the United States on three separate occasions. Manmohan Singh has been three times to the US in the past year alone. Those on the left of the political spectrum might interpret this as evidence of a dangerous subservience. I do not share this view, not least because two of Singh’s three recent visits to the US were for multilateral meetings. Still, the statistics are telling. Do they perhaps speak of a somewhat excessive emphasis on foreign policy, whereby India’s place in the world has assumed more importance for the prime minister than the status of Indians within India?
This turn to the outside is encouraged by a strain of boosterism in the press, led by editors who seek a greater global role for India, and endorsed by businessmen who wish not to be constrained by the domestic market alone. However, the claim to a place at the world’s High Table may be premature. The Republic of India is bleeding, from a thousand little cuts and a dozen larger ones. There is continuing discontent in the Kashmir Valley, and even greater discontent in Manipur. The talks with the Naga rebels are going nowhere. The Maoist insurgency in central India has assumed dangerous proportions. The agrarian distress in the peninsular states shows no signs of abating. Linguistic chauvinism episodically raises its head in India’s urbs prima, Mumbai.
Many of these conflicts have their roots in the uneven and inequitous pattern of economic development in India. Meanwhile, prospects for more inclusive growth are threatened by gross corruption at all levels of government, from the lowly tehsildar right up to the Union minister. Economic and social well-being are also undermined by the shocking state of government schools, universities, and hospitals.
This month the UPA completes six years in office. A report card on its performance thus far would rate it as mediocre, 50 per cent or a B grade perhaps. True, the threat of a Hindu rashtra has receded, and the country still hangs together. But the list of problems outlined in the previous paragraphs suggests that there is still much work to be done.
If the UPA government has had a rather ordinary record, this is in part due to the fact that the most powerful person in the government has no real power, while the most powerful person in the alliance has no real accountability. It’s well-known that Manmohan Singh cannot decide Cabinet appointments on his own. It is less well recognised that he can’t autonomously frame the economic and political policies that are necessary to tackle the range of social conflicts that undermine Indian democracy and threaten Indian unity.
To outline those policies is beyond the scope of this column. What I wish to flag here is merely one consequence of the curious division of authority between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi — namely, that the prime minister of India rarely gets to speak, face-to-face, with the people of India. The meetings he addresses tend to be science congresses and confederations of industry. The task of connecting with ordinary citizens is left to the Congress (and UPA) president and her son.
It would be interesting to get details of the PM’s domestic tours in these past six years. Has he visited all 28 states of the Indian Union? It is unlikely that he has. Has he visited any state more than once in the same year? This too may not be the case. And what kind of meetings has he addressed? It appears that it is only at election time that he speaks to the aam aadmi. On other occasions his audiences are more formal and restricted, linked to an annual meeting of some organisation or the inauguration of a university or rail link.
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi speak more often to the aam aadmi, although their interactions are also very heavily determined by the election cycle. Like the prime minister, they keep away from areas of social conflict — they have not visited Dantewada, for example, nor (as far as I can recall) Nagaland and Manipur either. Moreover, since they do not occupy positions in government, they cannot — and need not — take responsibility for its policies.
Travelling abroad, Manmohan Singh is less encumbered. Since the Gandhis do not have a real interest in foreign policy, he enjoys more autonomy and authority here. However, now that he has completed six full years in office, it may be time for the prime minister to assert himself more in the sphere of domestic policy as well. To begin with, he might start making regular trips to the states, trips unconnected with specific projects but undertaken merely to make contact with the people in whose name he exercises office.
It may be argued that these demands are unrealistic, given Singh’s own understated personality. But human beings are capable of self-transformation — consider how another quiet and diffident man, Lal Bahadur Shastri, became more decisive once he became prime minister. The less-than-happy condition of the Republic demands a more assertive prime minister. The term of the present incumbent still has four years to run; time enough to begin moderating social conflicts and reforming public institutions. Indeed, in terms of his own legacy, it matters far more what state Manmohan Singh leaves India and Indians in 2014, than what the world in general (or the West in particular) thinks of us.