Ardent critics of renowned economist John Maynard Keynes, while discrediting his 'Keynesian' economics, would often try to run him down by saying: “It is difficult to reconcile Keynes the politician with Keynes the economist.”
Keynes is believed to have rescued Britain’s economy twice in troubled times. So when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh quoted Keynes during his speech on demonetisation in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday – discrediting the long term benefits of demonetisation saying "in the long run, we are all dead", one of Keynes' most-quoted sayings – expectations rose that Singh would show his eloquence on the issues which are essentially economics, a domain where he is projected to be the master of all he surveys. But his speech was an utter disappointment.
It gave validity to the claims of his detractors that Singh was an “overrated economist and an underrated politician”. By the end of his speech, it was clear that he is on retainer of 10 Janpath, the official residence of Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi. His formulations on demonetisation bordered on 'studied ambiguity'. He did not oppose the move, but called it “legalised loot and plunder". Manmohan, was borrowing only selectively from Keynes' brilliance because Keynes had also said: "In economics you cannot convict your opponent of error -- you can only convince him of it."
Commenting on the former prime minister's speech in Rajya Sabha on demonetisation, R Jagannathan in his piece on Firstpost said, "The former prime minister had some good lines to offer in a polemical sense, but one doubts if this was a former Reserve Bank Governor and finance minister talking. He did not make the kind of heavy-duty points that one expected from him. He delivered some below-the-belt punches without realising his own midriff is vulnerable."
Singh's credentials as a policy planner are formidable because he has worn many hats in the government. In his stints as the governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI), deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, finance minister and as the longest serving prime minister outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Singh is endowed with insights to have enriched the debate. Instead, he resorted to the usual brand of rhetoric, played out by the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, Sharad Yadav, Ramgopal Yadav and Mamata Banerjee.
There is no denying that demonetisation has entailed a lot of pain and anguish for ordinary people – prima facie evidence shows that it was imposed in an ill-conceived manner. But its impact on the economy is still in the domain of ambiguity. The informal sector has come to a grinding halt throwing millions into a cycle of unemployment. The reverse migration from cities to rural areas portends ill for social stability and economic equilibrium. According to KN Govindacharya, a swadeshi ideologue of the saffron hue, trains from Punjab to Bihar are filled to capacity with labourers.
The Modi government will ignore the ominous signals emanating from the ground at its own peril. Rhetoric and counter rhetoric tend to dominate politics. But when a leader like Singh speaks on such an issue, one expects him to rise beyond the usual platitudes and explain its deleterious impact, along with suggesting ways to combat it. But Singh the politician, it seems, got the better of Singh the economist.
This is not the first time that Singh has taken refuge in academics to sustain his politics. Recall his statement in his last press conference as prime minister that history would be "more kind" to him than the media. Back then, he was banking more on history for his contemporary evaluation than his present critique of Narendra Modi.
Singh’s understanding of history is no less profound than his economic scholarship. He knows it better than most that history carries ruthless scrutiny, without fear and favour. And his decade-long stint as the country’s prime minister has left a legacy which reduced the post of the country’s top executive to an utterly meek and supplicant institution beholden to the Gandhi-Nehru family.
It is not a secret that Singh’s writ did not run beyond his own South Block office and 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (7, Race Course Road back then). There were cabinet ministers who ran amuck under his charge, or the lack of it. Scams like 2G and coal block allocations were the result of a paralysis that stemmed from the emergence of parallel power centres within the government.
The highest point of Singh’s achievement as prime minister was the manner in which he clinched the Indo-US nuclear deal. But that also turned out to be the nadir of his credentials as a politician when the cash-for-votes scandal unfolded in Parliament to save his government. That was the worst scandal in India's parliamentary history but Singh, till date, has never shown an iota of remorse for this indiscretion.
Perhaps there is a consistency in Singh’s political conduct after all. Having left behind his academic pursuit, he, like an ordinary career bureaucrat, performed the prime minister’s role as a job and thrived in the Congress ecosystem as a 'great survivor'. In one of the best written biographies on Keynes, titled 'Universal man, the seven lives of John Maynard Keynes' by Richard Davenport-Hines, the refers to Keynes' description of a great economist:
“The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purpose of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institution must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in simultaneous mood: As aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.”
Keynes here is talking about one of the greatest economists of his time, Alfred Marshall. Given these yardsticks, Singh the economist is bound to go down as a caricature of this description of an economist. In politics, however, he will be remembered as the “great survivor”. But one who survived not "as near the earth as a politician" but far from it.