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.
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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