The Peter Principle at work: Manmohan Singh in the PMO

One day, when the history of the UPA is written, the most difficult chapter will probably be the one on Manmohan Singh and the paradox he represents: an honest man presiding over gross dishonesty.

The answer to the paradox is, however, simple: it lies in The Peter Principle. Manmohan Singh is the ultimate exemplar of the Peter Principle at work.

Put simply, The Peter Principle, written by Lawrence J Peter, states that every person rises to his or her level of incompetence. The competencies required at various levels in an organisation are different. A great salesman may not make a great sales manager, but success at sales gets him promoted to sales manager – where he fails. Once he reaches his level of incompetence, there is no further promotion. But at even the current level – his level of incompetence - he does damage.

Manmohan Singh’s failure in governance – whether it is with the 2G or Commonwealth scams – stems from this principle. He has been promoted to his level of incompetence. A good reformer under Narasimha Rao, Singh actually played the role of a technocrat with solutions to the country's problems in the 1991-96 period. That was his real area of competence. That  is where he earned the title of original reformer, even though it was Narasimha Rao's political sagacity that enabled Singh to be a reformer in the first place.

But as Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh can't play a "Yes, minister" role. He can't be the bureaucrat offering solutions to Sonia Gandhi and wait for her nod. The Prime Minister has to decide, follow up, cajole, threaten, bully, and deliver.  But these are not Singh’s forte. He lacks not only the political backing to do what he must do, but also the skills and talent for the Prime Minister's job. Put him in the Planning Commission and he would have written several position papers and proposals for change. Put him in South Block, and he is like a fish out of water.

Things might have worked out better if Sonia or Rahul Gandhi were the PM and Manmohan Singh the Cabinet Secretary or the Chief Economic Advisor. He could even have been head of the National Advisory Council, formulating better ideas for inclusive growth than the NGO bunch that's running riot in Sonia's think-tank.

As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh can't play a "Yes, minister" role. AP

But prime ministership is outside the area of competence of Manmohan Singh. As all former sympathisers are realising now, Singh is not the one to take charge, take responsibility. He is not only incompetent for the job, but irresponsible as well.

Commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote this in The Indian Express: "P Chidambaram is in the dock not because of Pranab Mukherjee. It is Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister has distorted the entire structure of ministerial politics by not frontally owning and defending the decision not to auction 2G. He has tried to play an avoidance game, implausibly distancing himself from his own government. This avoidance strategy of the prime minister has landed Chidambaram in a mess.”

Does the prime minister of a country have the luxury of adopting an "avoidance strategy?" PMs are supposed to take responsibility even if they would like someone else to take the blame when things go wrong.

But irresponsibility and avoidance of blame is the streak we have seen repeatedly in Manmohan Singh. From the time he was finance minister in Rao's cabinet in the 1990s, in fact.

In 1992, when Harshad Mehta was looting banks and setting the markets on fire, Manmohan Singh said he would not lose sleep over what happened in the markets. When the scam erupted and his inaction criticised, he tried to run away from the problem and offered to quit. He was concerned only about his reputation for probity.

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In UPA-1, he practically brought the government down by taking a strong stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was, in many ways, his finest hour, for it seemed as if he was finally standing up for something he believed in.

But it was not to be.  When the government faced a confidence vote, he was missing in action. He left the dirty work of cobbling together a majority to someone else. He would have nothing to do with dirty politics.

When Dayanidhi Maran talked him into letting him decide spectrum policy, Singh quietly agreed. Then he had an attack of conscience and asked a Group of Ministers to decide the policy. But when Maran pressed him to revert to the original deal, he backtracked again.

The same thing happened with Andimuthu Raja. At some point Manmohan Singh realised that Raja was upto some hanky-panky. He had the option of stopping him, but he withdrew. Instead, he told his principal secretary to keep him at “arm’s length” from telecom issues.

His handling of the Ramdev and Anna Hazare threats was, at best, amateurish. PTI

Pranab Mukherjee’s 25 March 2011 on the “Chronology of basic facts relating to pricing and allocation of 2G spectrum” may have put the blame on Chidambaram for letting Raja have his way with spectrum policy, but it was effectively a veiled attack on Manmohan. Sure,  Chidambaram could have stopped Raja, if he wanted to – as the finance ministry note says. But that begs the corollary: if Chidambaram could have, the PM, too, could have? Was the PM less powerful than Chidambaram, or merely more irresponsible?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is trenchant in his criticism of Singh: "The prime minister consistently chooses to protect himself rather than credibly defend the government. This makes it easy to impute guilt to other ministers. His evasions also contribute to intellectual confusion. When the prime minister can’t tell you honestly what decisions he took, all decisions get tainted."

More recently, when asked about raging inflation, Singh said he “did not have a magic wand” to deal with it. True, no one has a magic wand. But does Singh take responsibility for his inability to control inflation, when his government's policies were partly the cause?

On his flight back from New York last week, when he was asked about the mess his government was in over 2G, all he could come up with was the opposition’s destabilisation threat. That the threat to his government was entirely within – with two key ministers on the warpath – was entirely lost on him. Or it was his way of avoiding the truth once again.

No doubt, there is a fair bit of incompetence to Singh. His handling of the Ramdev and Anna Hazare threats was, at best, amateurish. His lieutenants – Kapil Sibal and Chidambaram – made a hash of it with their macho bravado – leading to a cave-in. His choice of lieutenants was clearly wrong. His judgment of people is thus unsound.

He trusted even Raja, and this is what he said soon after his arrest in February this year. "Raja said he has been extremely transparent in dealing on the 2G scam..In May 2009, complaints were coming in, but I was not in a position to make up my mind that something seriously was wrong with Mr Raja's (approach)".

That Sonia Gandhi does not have much faith in Singh’s capabilities was obvious when we were told that she had – from her hospital bed at Sloan Kettering - specifically asked for Pranab Mukherjee to handle the end-game with respect to the Anna Hazare fast last month. It was Mukherjee who delivered – we had the parliamentary debate without even a final resolution to back the Jan Lokpal.

There’s no doubt that Manmohan Singh is in his job not for his competence but his loyalty. What Sonia wanted was a “Yes, minister” in place, and she has him. Singh is proof that the Peter Principle works even at the highest levels of political power.