Friday, 3 July 2020

Dr Singh: History Might Not Praise Him

Updated: April 4, 2015 4:38 pm

Dr Manmohan Singh had two rare opportunities that any person could wish for, to change India; but history will remember that he presided over the most corrupt government in independent India. At his last press conference in January 2014, Dr Manmohan Singh had, almost wistfully, expressed the view that “history will judge me more kindly.” That hope seems completely dashed by two events. The first two rounds of e-auctions for the coal blocks, cancelled by a Supreme Court order, have fetched cumulative bids of over Rs2 lakh crore for 32 producing blocks. The bids vindicate and surpass the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG’s) three-year-old report that estimated a ‘notional’ loss of Rs1.76 lakh crore to the exchequer due to arbitrary policies and the improper allocation of coal blocks.

Vinod Rai, who was the then CAG, was severely maligned by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with former minister Kapil Sibal claiming that there was ‘zero’ loss. Today, the UPA government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh stands exposed and it is now an established fact that he stood by and allowed the plunder of national resources, even if he did not touch a paisa of the loot. The loss was not merely ‘notional’.

Most of the coal mine allottees quickly availed bank loans. Consequently, the banking system has a massive exposure of Rs 5 lakh crore to entities connected with the coal sector and a chunk of them is already classified as bad loans or ‘non-performing assets’.

Dr Singh generally took refuge saying he could not act because of the compulsions of coalition politics, which were clearly more important than his oath of office as Prime Minister of India. It is hard to imagine that history will remember this kindly. Dr Singh has now been acutely embarrassed. He has been summoned by the special court under the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) this March as accused. The case pertains to charges of corruption, breach of trust and criminal conspiracy in the award of a specific coal block to Hindalco, an Aditya Birla group company. Some commentators argue that this is the least controversial of the coal block allotments and that it will be difficult to make the charges stick.

But court judgements are always about specific violations and not about the relative merits of a case in a milieu of exceptional corruption and arbitrariness. The Hindalco coal block allocation will be argued, decided and appealed, before a final conclusion is reached; but, even if the court verdict does not indict Dr Singh, history will have made up its mind long before then.

Dr Singh’s brilliant academic credentials and professional achievements held the promise of good governance, reform and development. India, then, was so much in awe of this mild-mannered, incorruptible man, who seemed set to deliver us from decades of humiliating shortages, low wages, high taxes, scarcity of basics like telephones, scooters and a cooking gas connection.

But obviously it was Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who was behind the liberalisation and gave Dr Singh the courage to do away with the Nehruvian Fabian Socialism. India revelled in its new freedom. To Dr Singh went the entire credit for reforming capital markets, permitting foreign portfolio investment and unshackling business from the licence-permit-raj and restrictions on capacity expansion and foreign investment.

Many scandals plagued the Narasimha Rao government too; but none of them ever stuck to Dr Manmohan Singh. We continue to face the consequences of some of those disastrous policies even today. Consider this. India was the first country where public outrage at the gold-plated Enron power project at Dabhol led to its cancellation and unfortunate resurrection. An atrocious power policy and sanctioning of expensive independent power projects (many were cancelled), without fixing distribution issues, has ensured that most of India still reels from acute power shortages.

The finance ministry and Dr Singh’s chosen bureaucrats and aides were in charge of clearances. There was a telecom licensing scandal too even in those days.

A series of independent regulators was set up under Dr Singh’s dispensation without any accountability towards investors, consumers or depositors who are their biggest stakeholders. This remains a problem too.

None of this ever stuck to Dr Singh. Instead, the then prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, took the blame for every scandal of that period, since he provided the political leadership. Indians of a certain vintage—mainly 50 years and above—continue to view Dr Singh with rose-tinted glasses and are saddened at his plight.

Ironically, Dr Singh’s disastrous two-term stint as prime minister has led to a reassessment of PV Naramsimha Rao’s tenure, although he was reviled, humiliated and discredited by the Congress party itself. In fact, history is a lot kinder to Dr Narasimha Rao and has given him due credit as the reformer who ensured India avoided a sovereign default and gave a hard, if short-lived, push to economic liberalisation. Dr Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, presided over the most corrupt government ever.

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