Tuesday, May 18, 2004

So, no Sonia. Sardar? (Profile of Manmohan Singh)

Sonia Gandhi has decided to turn down Prime Minister-ship. The practical reasons for her to drop out are obvious (earlier, the discussion had primarily centered around principle -- whether a foreign-born person should be able to be PM). A reason that hadn't been discussed, but which is apparent now, is the likelihood that some maniac would have tried to assasinate her along the lines of her husband and mother-in-law. Manmohan Singh is Sonia's choice to become PM in her stead.

Profile of Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh is clearly a quiet man, not a hard-nosed political type at all. He has an Oxford Ph.D., and had served as the head of the Reserve Bank of India in the 1980s. He was asked by Narasimha Rao to become Finance [major typo fixed] Minister in 1991, after the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi. He remained in that office until the government fell, in 1996.

Manmohan is a turban-wearing Sikh, the first minority Prime Minister India has ever had. But Sikhs occupy an unusual place among India's minorities (hard to pin it down exactly), and as a result his 'difference' has had no effect on public perception of him or on the government's trust in him in his years as Finance Minister. This is remarkable, given that Indira Gandhi was killed by a Sikh, and her son Rajiv Gandhi was not known to be friendly to Sikhs in the years following (to say the least).

Throughout the ugliness of the late-1980s -- Sikh terrorism and heavy-handed anti-insurgent government actions in Punjab -- Manmohan Singh stayed completely out of politics related to Punjab or Sikh issues. I spent some time flipping through Lexis-Nexis for old articles on Manmohan Singh from the 1980s and early 1990s, and I found virtually no references by him in any interviews to the rise of Khalistanism. He was asked about it on occasion; in the one interview I uncovered, he blamed the turn to militancy in Punjab on economic problems and lack of educational and professional opportunities. So Manmohan Singh is a Congress-wallah to the core: no one has ever seriously questioned his loyalty to the Congress Party or to India. If anything, one might question his tendency to reduce ideological problems to economic ones.

The man is an unshakable economics machine. In interview after interview, the topic is: belt-tightening, structural adjustment, disinvestment, delicensing, deficit-control, convertibility of currency, shedding of government employees, labor law reforms, pace of reforms, etc. etc. Here is a brief excerpt from an interview with Business Times (Singapore) in 1993:

Q: From the private sector to the public sector. You've mentioned that you'll phase out subsidies to India's loss-making public sector companies after 1994-95. What will happen to these companies after you do that?

A: Some of them have taken notice and started improving their performance. For example, Coal India is now entirely self-sufficient. The Steel Authority of India has also ceased to depend on the Budget. Those who can adjust and adapt have been warned, and it has had a healthy effect. Some are not able to help themselves. They will have to shed some activities. Maybe some activities have to be revived and we will help them do that. But those that are inherently unviable will simply have to be closed down. Shedding of labour will be part of the process of adjustment, and that's why we have the National Renewal Fund, which provides resources to some of these concerns for retraining, redeployment and compensation.

Q: What are you doing to reduce political interference in the public sector?

A: In the private sector, delicensing and the reduction of discretionary controls has reduced the scope for political interference, and what applies to the private sector also applies to the public sector as far as their reporting systems and their expansion are concerned.

But quite honestly, I haven't discovered a foolproof golden rule for establishing an arm's length relationship between the government and public enterprises. Even when you give autonomy to people, the fact that, ultimately, the government appoints the top executives, or renews their appointments means that these executives don't like to exercise their autonomy; they like to play safe. These are psychological barriers. So there are no easy solutions. [...snip...]

[W]e will offer for sale up to 49 per cent equity in well-functioning public enterprises. That will introduce a greater element of public accountability. I hope that gradually we can build on all this.

That was in 1993. Actually doing everything he set out to accomplish proved difficult, and critics in the mid-1990s said that the reforms were going too slowly. Indeed, in 1996, before the Congress Government folded, many of his reforms were still only partially in effect, as this profile in BusinessWeek suggests:

India also must come up with a policy to deal with the state sector. Although a handful of public companies are well run, the overall return of capital on the nearly $ 30 billion invested in them is only around 2%. About 200 of the country's 220 centrally owned companies are chronic money-losers. The situation is even worse at the many companies owned by individual states. Many of the state irrigation and electricity companies don't even recover a fraction of their costs, and about 75% of them have negative net worth. Heavy borrowing by government companies -- $ 60 billion from the central government alone -- drives up interest rates throughout the economy.

Despite a program launched in 1991 to whittle down state ownership, only about $ 3 billion has been raised to date in sell offs. An international offering of four companies late last year flopped, with fund managers grumbling that the stakes sold were too small to inspire any confidence that the share sales would mean a managerial transformation.

With interest payments swallowing just over half of government revenues -- and nearly equivalent to the sizable fiscal deficit of 5.6% of GDP -- a radical privatization program would free up massive resources for social spending and infrastructure. Selling off the state sector would let the central government eliminate net borrowing. But even the reformist Singh vows the government will stick to its policy of keeping at least 51% ownership of most state companies. ''I'm not sure all the people in power understand the magnitude of the problem,'' says R.C. Bhargava, managing director of Maruti Udyog, a carmaker that is a successful government-Suzuki Motor Corp. joint venture.

After Manmohan Singh's tenure ended, successive governments have progressively implemented the reform policies he initiated in 1991-1992. Some of the problems that were apparent in 1996 have dissipated, but others remain. This (economic policy) is most definitely not my strong point; I'll be curious to see what others think, and also how the new government decides the policies it will pursue.

Manmohan Singh himself ran unsuccessfully for the Lok Sabha (Lower Parliament), and then served in the Rajya Sabha (Upper Parliament), representing the eastern state of Assam. There he served as Opposition leader, but nevertheless maintained a relatively low profile (most of the real political power in India is centered in the Lok Sabha). Manmohan did have a small public run-in with L.K. Advani in 1999 over the question of Advani's role in the razing of the Babri Masjid. Advani came out on top in that event, deflecting the attacks on his own chraracter by suggesting he would initiate a new probe into the massacres of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assasination in 1984. This was designed to embarrass Manmohan Singh -- some Congress members who remain in the upper leadership may have been complicit in those events. But it was resolved through a round of apologies, and remained, on the whole, a rather minor affair.

Going from a relatively low-profile stint in the opposition to Prime Minister will be a major turn-around and a first for India. Is Manmohan Singh, with his academic training and his distaste for hardball political gamesmanship, really the right person for the job? Time will tell (I wish him luck).

Manmohan Singh on WTO, Globalization

I found this interview on PBS. The most interesting part to my mind is the section where he responds to the anti-WTO movement at Seattle.

INTERVIEWER: What's your reaction to the anti-capitalist, anti-WTO campaign, and its legitimacy?

MANMOHAN SINGH: Let me say that there are people in the West who would like to further go on the road to rewrite the rules of the game. The needs of U.S. labor, for example, all this talk of introducing labor standards into WTO negotiations, environmental standards. These are non-trade issues. The American attempt at Seattle to introduce these extraneous issues really created serious doubts in the minds of many developing countries that new protectionism was back in the West in the guise of labor standards, social standards, and environment. I sincerely believe that the West should resist using the WTO as an instrument to promote these causes. This is not to say that labor standards are not important, our environmental standards are not important, but we have international institutions. The ILO [International Labor Organization] isthere; the UNIP [United National Independence Party] is there. Those things should be dealt with in those [organizations]. But to do these things as sanctions in trading relations will perpetuate the inequities of the present trading system, where the stronger countries always dictate the rules of the game.

He comes out pro-free trade in the pure sense. He's not especially interested in the protestors, but he is highly aware of the ways in which international trade agreements are slanted to benefit the interests of wealthy countries.


Anonymous said...

Surd PM, Catholic king maker, Muslim President. Whine some more about the oppressed minorties of India, Mr Diaspora Singh.

11:42 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Singh seems like a win-win for Congress. They get a minority PM and the architect of the liberalization. It will show an example of how they can be friendly to business interests and to secularism. Meanwhile, Sonia will remain a prominent figure.

11:44 AM  
Amardeep said...

I'm curious to know what happened in the meeting with President Kalam. It sounds like she went into the meeting with the intention of becoming PM and came out with doubts ('another day will be necessary'). Then within hours she decided not to seek the PMship.

I wonder if Kalam attempted to discourage her? The only hint I've been able to find in the media is the suggestion that he had serious questions for her: how many seats do you really have in your coalition?

Hopefully, after things settle down we'll have more clarity on what happened. Otherwise everyone will think it was the market crash and the histrionics of lower-level BJP MPs (Sushma Swaraj, etc.) that shook her self-confidence.

11:53 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

The crash had to be influential. And, it doesn't make sense that a Sonia PM would be the reason. Presumably, Singh would be the finance minister. I'm guessing the coalition has toruble with Sonia's national origin. Maybe Congress can get a larger "dedicated" coalition government with Singh. That would help restore investor confidence that the government will be able to act.

12:20 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

On the PBS comments: Singh makes agood point that labor standards could tilt the trade agreements furthr in favor of the West. What he neglects to add is that they might not. Adding labor and environmental standards to the treaties is not likely to deter investment outside the West. The new markets (both for production and consumption) are outside the West. Thus, for any transnational firm to grow it will be necessary to invest outside the West. We are not to the point where transportation costs are negligible. We are also not at the point where business can be run efficiently without face-to-face contact.

Why doesn't he advocate for labor and environmental standards to be removed from Western nations if he truly wants absolutely free trade? That's more obviously preposterous than the reverse. But, they are both problematic. Minimal labor and environmental standards promote growth in consumption. Growth in consumption promotes production growth. In turn, that promotes investment in growth areas. India is a growth area because of its population, territorial area, and skilled labor force.

I don't like this guys economics. Sounds like water is about to cost more money in India.

2:32 PM  
Amardeep said...

Interesting point, Brey. But I wonder if his point that labor issues should be decided by other international organizations might have merit?

It reminds me of the thread on Crooked Timber this morning -- on whether 'rights based lending' is valid or not. It's a very creative attack on the idea, but it's refuted by some of the commentors, including especially Tim Burke. Burke is in favor of rights-based lending (his position might line up with your own). The author, dsquared, finds it to be a bad idea, based on the number of valid projects funded by the World Bank in countries that have moderate to severe human rights problems.

3:14 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

I'll have to check that out. The trouble is no nation is free from human rights violations. I think sometimes it gets used to proscribe regions of the world from investment. And, there's the counter argument that investment from the West encourages better human rights. But, that is suspect. The best indicators I've seen are based upon the treatment of women.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous said...

About Manmohan Singh as PM: a decent man, well-versed in economics. And that's just the beginning of his problems ;)

Surprising as it may seem, I'm somewhat worried by this sort of arrangement. Sonia Gandhi will still be the power (behind the PMO), and that may lead to even greater delays in the speed with which things get done. I hope Singh will turn out to be his own man.

On foreign aid: There shouldn't be any, other than aid to ward off famine & the ill effects of other natural disasters. If projects aided by global institutions were truly viable, the private sector would be quite willing to fund them.

It's not a surprising, then, that foreign aid (mostly) doesn't help reduce poverty. To adopt a Marxist phrase, 'objectively speaking' foreign aid tends to further the donor nations' interests, and naturally plays favorites among potential aid recipients. In this sense 'rights-based' lending is not a new idea at all.

Formally and informally, lending institutions have always taken into account the 'character' of aid recipients. The further institutionalisation of this practice will only heighten the noxious politics characteristic of so many aid decisions. Only this time, I presume lefty NGO's will also be given a chance to hector aid recipients!

P.S. I'm puzzled by your remark that Dr. Singh's turban-wearing hasn't attracted attention in India. Other than Khalistanis, who believes that Sikhs 'as' Sikhs are persecuted in India? Surely you need no reminder of the turbaned-Sikh presence in the armed forces or other areas of public life.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous said...

To answer Kumar's question : it puts things in perspective, doesn't it? How much of a disconnect Amardeep Diaspora Singh has with India.

Manmohan Singh is not a political animal and everybody respects him. There will be scarcely any eyebrows raised if Manmohan Singh becomes the PM. His religion is not an issue. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Diaspora Singh.

4:52 PM  
Amardeep said...

Nothing in my post suggested that Sikhs are a persecuted minority.

Sikhs have a complex status in India. I believe it is only partially right to refer to them as a 'minority'. Sikhism is a separate faith (thus Sikhs are technically a minority), but economically and socially Sikhs do not suffer from any disadvantages. No one, for instance, accuses Sikhs of being foreign to India; if anything, Sikhs are sometimes considered ultra-Indian for their disproportionate presence in the army and for their association with the repository of Punjabi folk culture (bhangra, daroo, masti...)

Still, in Indian popular culture -- jokes, songs, movies -- there is a bit of disrespectful stereotyping that many Sikhs find irritating. Sikhs are often portrayed as emotional and 'lalloo' (meaning, rustic). Remember all the jokes about Giani Zail Singh! Admittedly, there are stereotypes about most major Indian ethnic groups: there are Gujju jokes, Tam-Bram jokes, Bengali jokes, Bihar jokes, etc.

The jokes are affectionate, but in my view they aren't entirely harmless. Call me politically hyper-sensitive (I know you will, and probably much worse), but I personally find all the inter-ethnic humor in India a little distasteful. It smacks of a kind of nativism.

I admit it's a small thing -- relative to the economic disparity that exists between Muslims and the majority, or the disloyalty that Muslims are regularly suspected of. But notice: no mainstream Hindi film has ever had a turbaned Sikh as a romantic protagonist. Why not?

So perhaps it is just a bit of an issue that there might be a Prime Minister who wears a turban. How long will it be before the Sardar jokes start up?

7:08 PM  
Anonymous said...

Why has no mainstream Hindi movie has a Sardar as a romantic protagonist?

Because of the poverty of their scripts. How many Hindi movies have a Mallu as a romantic protagonist? Or a Marathi, or an Oriya? Or *gasp* Assamese?

Oy Paape, quit da whining yaar!

7:44 PM  
Anonymous said...

I can't think of too many bearded non-Sikh Hindi film protagonmists either.

8:10 PM  
Anonymous said...

Vijeta? Kunal Kapoor playing young Sikh pilot?

Your turn to name Mallu or Assamese romantic protagonist. If you can't, an apology to the Hindu middle class will be neceesary and sufficient.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

Again, I have no taste for ad hominem attacks--so I'm certainly not going to start now. Btw, your sensitivity to Sardar jokes is perfectly understandable to me. Kashmiri Pandits are also the subject of a few affectionate jokes. But such joshing is an (extremely) minor price of living in a truly diverse society.

I don't read much more into it, and you shouldn't either. That's why you're simply off-the-mark in suspecting that Dr. Singh's beard and turban would raise eyebrows. Further undercutting your suspicions are that the stereotypes, as you mention, are both positive and negative.

P.S., Let me add that comments such as this, among other things, make your blog valuable reading for me: I wouldn't have thought this a plausible worry, yet your remarks have shown that some American Sikhs think otherwise. A bit saddening, but enlightening nonetheless.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

I forgot to address your remark about the lack of Sikh romantic heroes in Bollywood filums. It's not because of any specific stereotype about Sardars. Rather, the ideal romantic hero tends to be 'western', which usually means being clean-shaven, wearing western clothes etc. Think, for example, of the 'chaiya, chaiya' song in 'Dil Se': Of all the Indians on the train's roof, only the hero (played by Shah Rukh Khan) is dressed in Western clothes.


9:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

Heros in Hindi films tend to have a filmi pan-North Indian identity on account of economic reasons. If they are of a specific linguistic or cultural identity, the people in some sections in the large and diverse country cannot relate to them and films will not do well. This is the (dubious) conventional wisdom. Intelligent filmmakers will often set them in specific cultural contexts - Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Govind Nihalani, Amol Palekar, Shyam Benegal usually have more realistic characters set in more authentic settings.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

Zail Singh was a buffoon, like Laloo Yadav and George Bush. Manmohan Singh is not. I am yet to hear a Surd joke involving Manmohan Singh, obviously a very smart man. In fact, I am yet to hear one single adverse opinion on Manmohan Singh's qualification for the PM's job other than that he might be too nice and too apolitical a guy.

The economic disparity that exists between what you cal the 'majority community' and Muslims is not the fault of the 'majority community'. The majority community is not a monolith - socially, politically and culturally. This frequent demonization of the Hindus is not conducive to secularism.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous said...

In fact, every second person who calls himself a secularist typically exhibits speech contrary to secularism. Perhps secularism is less in the ideology and opinions you profess than in your behavior and attitude to your freinds, neighbours, servants, colleagues. So Mr Diaspora Singh might be a good man, even thoguh he might give the appearance of a hypcrite. Or he might be an awful man, who knows. Perhaps there is no correlation between the intellectual rigour of your arguments and the real secularism in you.

11:15 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

On the secularism argument: Speaking about the evils of Hindu fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalists is not anti-secularist. I don't think Amardeep or anyone else here has stated that Hindus as a group are communal. The conversation has been targeted at BJP policies that promote communalism. And, then, at what a Congress win might mean about how those policies have resonated with those that once voted in greater numbers for the BJP.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous said...

Why, did you miss Singh's incessant whining about the majority community?

1:52 PM  
Amardeep said...

Maybe he missed it -- overwhelmed by all your whining about me. Why don't you give it a rest?

2:08 PM  
Anonymous said...

You're the one who poses as an expert in secularism.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous said...


India now has a PM and a President, both of minority communities from modest backgrounds who made it to the top on merit. They are both universally respected and no one doubts their integrity. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Amardeep Hindubasher Singh.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous said...

Consider this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3736937.stm

"Our Guru has said: When a Khalsa (Sikh) is the ruler, no one shall suffer poverty or persecution," he says.

A sikh can say that no questions asked. If a hindu says that about hinduism he will be called all manner of things.

8:01 PM  

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