In The Pink Panther film series, we have a bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau, whose incompetence is only matched by his incredible knack for survival.
Is Manmohan Singh India’s Pink Panther?
For a man whose reputation was mud and looked like he was due for replacement by Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh got a fresh lease on the PM’s chair when Mamata Banerjee suddenly announced his name for possible elevation to president. And Sonia had to dig in and say he stays.
Few PMs have had the luck of Pink Panther Singh. So let’s begin at the beginning.
In 1991,even as history beckoned, Manmohan Singh was headed somewhere else: the University Grants Commission. According to Yashwant Sinha, Manmohan Singh offered a backdated order for outgoing PM Chandra Shekhar to sign and make him Chairman of the UGC. Backdated, because Chandra Shekhar had already resigned after the Congress withdrew support to his minority government.
But soon after the election, luck hit Manmohan Singh in the face. Narasimha Rao became PM as the Congress power-brokers couldn’t agree on anyone else. Rao’s first choice for FM was apparently IG Patel, a former RBI Governor and Director of the London School of Economics, but he said no. Manmohan was in.
That was his first stroke of luck.
As FM, Manmohan Singh presided over a path-breaking budget in 1991 and was heralded as the father of reforms. But Yashwant Sinha, as FM in the ill-fated Chandra Shekhar government, had already done much of the spadework for reforms.
As Bibek Debroy pointed out in an article in The Economic Times last December: “Any FM in 1991 would have had to introduce those reforms. The agenda was known. The blueprint was known. All of these had been firmed up by the end of 1990. All that remained was for (the) FM to read out the speech. MMS wasn't the engineer or the architect. At best, he was the contractor (for reforms).”
That was Manmohan’s second piece of good fortune. For the political courage shown by Narasimha Rao, he got the credit. For work already half-done by the finance ministry under Yashwant Sinha, he got kudos. Luckless Sinha got the blame for pawning India’s gold to raise foreign exchange reserves.
Between 1996 and 2004, of course, Manmohan Singh was there and not there. He made no impact on politics or leadership in the Congress, despite being leader of the party in the Rajya Sabha from 1998-2004. His one forte was loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. And this paid off in spades in 2004.
In 1999, he lost the Lok Sabha elections from Delhi South, but that loss surely endeared him even more to Sonia. As a future PM who could never win, he became her obvious choice as PM when she decided to stand down in 2004.
That was his third piece of luck — Sonia’s decision in 2004 to anoint him as PM — and one of the few he has acknowledged gratefully so far.
But between 2004-09, his first term as PM, Manmohan Singh thought he was cursed for having to kowtow to the Left parties, who stood between him and reforms. This is why he never remembered his most important piece of luck: the George W Bush global liquidity bonanza which drove the Indian economy towards the 9 percent growth rate.
The growth momentum had starting to pick up in the last year of the NDA, but it was Manmohan and P Chidambaram who reaped it in big measure. That was Lucky Strike No 5 — a prolonged period of undeserved high growth and tax revenues that were wrongly credited to Singh’s policies.
In 2008, when the Lehman crisis struck, Manmohan Singh was actually heading an economy with high inflation (over 12 percent) and high interest rates. But Lehman was a godsend. As oil prices crashed in a global economy slipping into depression, inflation started collapsing on the eve of an election.
That was his sixth piece of luck. Again an undeserved one, since the decline in inflation to below zero in 2009 had nothing to with UPA’s economic management skills. In fact, UPA was busy sowing the seeds of further inflation by huge giveaways in terms of farm loan waiver, oil and fertiliser subsidies, and large social spends (NREGA, etc), not to speak of an economic stimulus (a euphemism for cutting taxes).
Two other pieces of luck — No 7 and No 8 — came his way in 2008. He got rid of the Left, and won a confidence vote after the nuclear deal. And on 26/11, after terrorists struck in Mumbai, Manmohan Singh finally managed to shift P Chidambaram out of the finance ministry on the plea that the home ministry needed him more.
Of course, he still could not get his favourite Montek Singh Ahluwalia into the finance ministry, but that was just as well. The economy was heading into another major crisis, and Pranab Mukherjee got most of the blame for that. That’s luck of another kind.
Manmohan’s bad karma did get him embroiled in the 2G scam, and there was talk that Sonia may be looking for a replacement soon. But this is where he managed to confuse things by getting the finance ministry to prepare a note that laid the blame for the 2G pricing on Chidambaram. The past and present FMs were seen to be having a go at each other, and Manmohan was off the hook.
Luck was helped by Manmohan’s pluck in this case.
This year, as the economy has gone from bad to worse, Manmohan’s stewardship has been seen almost universally as a liability. But that’s where Mamata Banerjee did her rescue act. When she dropped the clanger that the PM could be elevated to president, Sonia Gandhi had no option but to keep him back in the job — just to show she’s boss. That’s his 9th stroke of good luck.
Now, if only Sonia gives him his 10th slice by allowing him to run the finance ministry with his pal Montek…
Even if that doesn’t happen, Luck No 10 is on the way with the drop in oil prices. If oil prices keep falling — which they could if the global economy slips into recession again — we could have a sharp drop in inflation and interest rates as in 2008-09.
That would be sheer, dumb luck.