Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has said Prime Minister Manmohan is a tragic figure, who failed in his ambition to curb corruption and became a victim of his helplessness as he did not have the requisite political power to push it through.
"He (Singh) will be remembered by those who know him well as a sad figure, in the sense that he wanted to do much more about corruption," Sen told HT in an exclusive interview. "He did not have the political power to eliminate corruption," he said.
Sen, who flew to West Bengal to vote in a rare, high-profile and vocal visit to India during which he criticised election frontrunner Narendra Modi, also said Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had the requisite quality to fill the prime ministerial shoes.
"The fact that he is probably not winning elections does not mean that he has been unsuccessful," Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University, said.
Sen also said Singh deserves credit for initiating programmes to improve healthcare and education services as well high growth rates.
"The UPA can certainly take credit for the highest rate of economic growth India has ever achieved, almost catching up with China," Sen said.
Full text of the interview:
The next government will assume office in the middle of a crippling economic deceleration. What should the new government's priorities be?
I think there are long-run issues and short-run issues. Short-run issues include facilitating economic recovery, which is sometimes not easy to do without changing long-run policies. In the short-run, we require sufficiently supportive gestures including facilitating higher growth and lower inflation.
I think these are more management issues, and to some extent, these are already happening. Given the very difficult international circumstances, India is not doing too badly compared to the rest of the world, although more can be done.
Second, among the medium-term priorities, getting the Indian economy back on a competitive footing in the world is important. There are still vestiges of the licence-raj that require to be removed. Third and most important, the long-run issues have to be addressed here and now.
I think the Indian economy is very weak structurally because we are trying to do what no other country has done. We are trying to achieve high rates of economic growth and development on a sustained basis with a substantially illiterate labour force and extraordinarily chaotic healthcare system.
Nothing is as important for the long-run prospect of economic growth and development as having a healthy educated labour force. No country in the world has achieved high rates of economic development and sustained growth of per capita income with an ill-educated and unhealthy labour force.
Do you think a Narendra Modi-led BJP government will be able solve these problems?
The Gujarat government's record on this aspect (human development) has not been particularly good. I am a great admirer of many things that Gujarat has done, not just under Narendra Modi, but even before. But, human development has not been among its better achievements. The percentage of literacy, the rate of infant mortality and extent of healthcare services in Gujarat are like those in a middling country.
The difference will partly depend on who the coalition partners are, and partly on whether the BJP rethinks itself. They have reason to take credit for things like keeping power on all the time, roads being improved, and generally getting things done such as licences with admirable despatch. On the other hand, engagement on the issues like health and education continue to remain poor.
Many critics argue that India's subsidy programme is badly designed and fiscally irresponsible. Your comments.
I agree, but we cannot solve the problems without first recognising their exact nature. I should say that the media has been unfair in giving out the impression that the government has been fiscally irresponsible in trying to get food to the poor by the Food Security Act and trying to give employment to the rural poor.
In totality, the expenditure on food security and NREGA is only a little over 1% of our GDP. On the other hand, subsidy to power and fuel for the relatively affluent and to fertilisers for the rich farmers amount to more than 2.63% of India's GDP.
Do you think a strong leadership by somebody like Modi will be able to helpful for India given the current state of problems?
Strong leadership could be of any kind. Strong leadership in world history has come from many different political quarters. I will not take any names, because immediately I will be told that I am comparing Mr Modi with somebody else. The point that I am trying to make is that strong leadership itself is not a guarantee. It is also about informed leadership.
It is amazing that way back in 1860s, during the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese leadership was entirely convinced that the first thing to do was to make the population fully literate and have high quality education, and they achieved that between 1870 and 1905. The same thing happened in Korea, in Taiwan, in Thailand and is now happening in Indonesia, and, of course, dramatically in China. For that, we need more commitment of resources as well as better organisation.
How would you describe Manmonhan Singh's legacy?
I think Manmohan Singh will be remembered for many achievements including that of bringing about economic reforms in the 1990s. The very high rate of growth for the bulk of the time he has been the prime minister goes to his credit. To say that this (the high rate of growth) is a continuation of the last couple of years of the NDA government's achievement is ridiculous. He will also be remembered for many other achievements such as making India polio free.
During his time, the threatening epidemic of AIDS got very substantially tamed. The government was also able to handle cyclones much larger than Katrina with little loss of lives by the planning of timely evacuation.
He initiated a number of supportive moves by the government in education, healthcare, employment generation, nutritional enhancement, even when he was not entirely successful, his intentions were quite clear. He will also be remembered by those who know him well as a sad figure, in the sense that he wanted to do much more about eliminating corruption. He did not have the political power to achieve this though he himself remained completely non-corrupt personally.
Do you think the constant comparison with China on almost all parameters is the correct thing to do?
Comparison with China is important. However, we should not compare only growth of GDP. Comparison should also be made in education, literacy, life expectancy, infant mortality and immunisation and so on. It is also a folly to assume that GDP growth rates can be maintained at high levels over long stretches of time, without doing those things that the Chinese and others have done in areas of education and healthcare.
It is sometimes said that you are in favour of redistribution rather than economic growth. Is that correct?
Absolutely not. I have never focused on redistribution of income per se. I have been emphasising the role of good and universal public services like education, healthcare and other determinants of human capability. I have also been arguing that these steps are not only important for living standards, but also for sustaining high economic growth in the long run. There is much to learn from East Asia including China on this. Even within India, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, by following this strategy of human capability expansion, have become among the richest Indian states, starting from very lowly positions.
Crony capitalism has turned out to be one of the hottest issues during this year's elections. How rampant do you think crony capitalism is in India?
Very rampant. Crony capitalism can exist anywhere where there is an opportunity for making money without doing the actual work that a healthy industry will require. It is all about getting privileges and cashing in on the privileges, rather than being productive.
At the same time, that is not to say that removing crony capitalism will itself solve most of India's problems. India has to have a thriving market economy, including a thriving globally integrated economy, and high quality public services. We need active and efficient markets. We also need an active and efficient government, providing good public services.
What are your views on Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who, according to opinion polls, is unlikely to do well in the elections despite achieving economic success?
The fact that he is probably not winning elections does not mean that he has been unsuccessful in what he has been trying to achieve. Bihar has the highest rate of economic growth in India by a long margin. In terms of what he has been trying to do in the economic scene, he has achieved a lot. Schools and hospitals are much better. In political terms, he had hoped to achieve success by transcending caste politics. That has not proved possible. I think he is of Prime Ministerial quality.