Dr Manmohan Singh assumed office as Prime Minister on May 22, 2004. When he hoists the flag over the Red Fort this year he shall have been in office — give or take the odd hour — for eight years, two months, three weeks, and three days. That is just short of ninety-nine months, close to one hundred.
Whether ninety-eight, ninety-nine, or one hundred months, that is a longer unbroken tenure than any Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi's run from 1966 to 1977. What has Dr Manmohan Singh achieved in his one hundred months (or so) in Race Course Road?
On the positive side, this Prime Minister has run the cleanest Prime Minister's Office since Lal Bahadur Shastri's day. Having said that you have said it all.
I can sum up the Manmohan Singh years in two words — 'decline' and 'degradation'.
The economy is in decline. The Budget has been reduced to an annual exercise in fantasy. The Manmohan Singh government set itself a fiscal deficit target of 4.6 per cent of G.D.P. for the fiscal year 2011-2012; the real figure turned out to be 5.9 per cent. The 2012 Budget predicted the deficit would fall to 5.1 per cent in 2012-2013. Nobody believes this.
Nor does anybody believe the tall claims of 9 per cent growth in GDP that this government's spokesmen were touting even at the beginning of 2012. Even the Planning Commission no longer believes that; on August 3 its Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said growth would be around 6 per cent; the real figure will probably be even lower, given the experience with government estimates.
Budget estimates and GDP figures are not really on the radar for the common man. As far as he is concerned, ‘GDP’ could stand for Garibi se dabe hue purush!
Do the rulers of India understand just how bad the situation is? Let me give you two instances of callousness by those in power.
On September 20, 2011 — a day which should be called 'Black Tuesday' — the Planning Commission told the Supreme Court that anyone spending more than Rs. 965 per month in urban India, or Rs 781 in rural India, was not deemed “poor”. That works out to about Rs 32 per day in cities and Rs 26 per day in villages — and those above the poverty line are ineligible for welfare schemes.
Can Montek Singh Ahluwalia and his planners demonstrate how to live on Rs 32 a day? (This is the same Planning Commission that spent Rs 35 lakh to upgrade two toilets in its own offices.)
Did that renowned economist Dr Manmohan Singh say a word to rebut the Planning Commission?
If that was callousness, let me offer the second example, one of carelessness.
On July 25, 2012 the United States Department of Agriculture said that food prices were expected to rise in 2013 because of the drought currently gripping that country. On August 3, 2012 the Indian Meteorological Office declared that 2012 was a drought year in India.
Do you see the difference? The Americans started preparing for 2013 before India, poorer and with four times the mouths to feed, began making plans for 2012. Did the Manmohan Singh ministry need a certificate of drought from the Indian Meteorological Department? Couldn't ministers have just used their eyes, and seen how dry and dusty everything is even in Delhi?
It is not just deficit rainfall that we face but also a deficit in governance.
The Manmohan Singh ministry fails to walk the walk even when it talks the talk. NREGA, one of its pet schemes, could have been one of the most useful weapons in its arsenal but it is no more than another wasted opportunity.
In the 1930s, the United States was faced not just with the Great Depression but a drought that lasted several years. (Exactly the same situation facing India today.) President Roosevelt organised the Civilian Conservation Corps, to give jobs to 2,876,938 unemployed people. Between them they laid 125,000 miles of roads, protected 40 million acres of farmland from erosion, built several bridges, and planted two billion trees.
But you needn't look outside India. When famine struck Bikaner in 1899-1900 Maharaja Ganga Singhji built the Ganga Canal — providing both work and food for the famine-affected immediately and insurance against future droughts.
What did NREGA achieve? According to Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh it has created no real assets. “I do not accept that you dig a ditch, take out soil and call it 'employment',” sarcastically adding, “Put the soil back into the ditch, that is also 'employment'!”
India desperately needs infrastructure development on precisely the scale that NREGA might have provided. Enough has been written about the collapse of the power grids. But what of something even more vital, the daily supply of water? Couldn't some of those NREGA funds have been used to store water through traditional watershed management techniques? Or prop up the cracking road and rail infrastructure? Or build a few houses? Or just teach the unemployed some basic skills in plumbing, masonry, or carpentry?
Instead, all that NREGA has done is to teach the destitute how to beg the local bosses to give them at least part of their legal due.
This brings up the second residue of Manmohan Singh's years in office, the degradation, specifically the moral and intellectual degradation.
Yes, NREGA could have been useful if not diverted by corruption. But can you blame a local sarpanch for corruption when senior politicians set the example? The 2G Scam. The Commonwealth Games Scandal. The Adarsh Housing Scandal. Need I read out the full list?
The worst part is that this poison has oozed beyond the usual politician-bureaucrat nexus. Whether the Bofors scandal in Rajiv Gandhi's day or the Jeep Scandal in his grandfather's, there have always been question marks over defence procurement. But we always felt that the men in uniform were honest. Now we face a situation where an officer is not always a gentleman; the Tatra Trucks Scam, the Adarsh Housing Scam, and the Sukhna Land Scam demonstrate that corruption is a fact of life even in the senior ranks of the armed forces.
The average educated Indian became cynical about politicians long ago, but two institutions — the armed forces and the judiciary — were believed to be pillars of integrity. Given the rot in the Army, it should come as no surprise then that today even some judges are under the scanner.
Janardhana Reddy, once a minister in the BJP government in Karnataka, was granted bail by Pattabhirama Rao in a CBI court; a few weeks later the judge himself was arrested for corruption. This was followed by arrests of more judges—or former judges—in what is now known as the Cash-for-Bail Scam, which ran with cold efficiency on both sides of the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border.
But can you blame those judges when the Supreme Court asked the government to probe complaints against a former Chief Justice, KG Balakrishnan?
At least, the Supreme Court and the Army still have honest judges and generals to unearth cases of misconduct by their own; when will the political class start doing so?
Janardhana Reddy was—still is—a BJP man. His group demonstrates how corruption spans not just states but also political parties. The Reddy brothers' allies stand by the BJP in Karnataka and are friends of the Congress in Andhra Pradesh. Whether it is the Reddy brothers in Karnataka, the hasty induction of Babu Singh Kushwaha in Uttar Pradesh, or the controversial nomination of Anshuman Mishra for a Rajya Sabha seat from Jharkhand, there is a visible degradation of moral fibre in the BJP too.
What happens when the voters believe sab chor hai? Look at Andhra Pradesh, where the most popular leader is Jaganmohan Reddy, a man in jail for disproportionate assets. When A Raja of 2G fame came out of Tihar Jail, on bail, his party, the DMK, gave him a hero's welcome. Suresh Kalmadi's supporters took him on a victory procession in Pune for getting bail. Shame simply does not exist any longer in the political class.
And, sadly, there is no alternative. The epics say there is a difference between Brihaspati and Indra, the 'Guru' and the 'Raja'. That example was followed by Chanakya in ancient times, and more recently by Mahatma Gandhi and Jai Prakash Narain. I had hoped Anna Hazare and his team would abide by that tradition; now it seems they too have been seduced by office.
Dr. Manmohan Singh cannot be blamed for corruption in the BJP and the judiciary. But these hundred months have given us one of the most shameless regimes in India. Everyone runs the risk of moral flabbiness when the Prime Minister is seen turning a blind eye to the corruption of his colleagues, in the party or in the government.
India can survive budget deficits. India can survive rainfall deficits. India may even be able to survive governance deficits. But can India survive a moral deficit?
(The writer is former editor of The Week, Sunday Mail and a senior columnist).