Profile of Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh is clearly a quiet man, not a hard-nosed political type at all. He has an Oxford Ph.D., and had served as the head of the Reserve Bank of India in the 1980s. He was asked by Narasimha Rao to become Finance [major typo fixed] Minister in 1991, after the assasination of Rajiv Gandhi. He remained in that office until the government fell, in 1996.
Manmohan is a turban-wearing Sikh, the first minority Prime Minister India has ever had. But Sikhs occupy an unusual place among India's minorities (hard to pin it down exactly), and as a result his 'difference' has had no effect on public perception of him or on the government's trust in him in his years as Finance Minister. This is remarkable, given that Indira Gandhi was killed by a Sikh, and her son Rajiv Gandhi was not known to be friendly to Sikhs in the years following (to say the least).
Throughout the ugliness of the late-1980s -- Sikh terrorism and heavy-handed anti-insurgent government actions in Punjab -- Manmohan Singh stayed completely out of politics related to Punjab or Sikh issues. I spent some time flipping through Lexis-Nexis for old articles on Manmohan Singh from the 1980s and early 1990s, and I found virtually no references by him in any interviews to the rise of Khalistanism. He was asked about it on occasion; in the one interview I uncovered, he blamed the turn to militancy in Punjab on economic problems and lack of educational and professional opportunities. So Manmohan Singh is a Congress-wallah to the core: no one has ever seriously questioned his loyalty to the Congress Party or to India. If anything, one might question his tendency to reduce ideological problems to economic ones.
The man is an unshakable economics machine. In interview after interview, the topic is: belt-tightening, structural adjustment, disinvestment, delicensing, deficit-control, convertibility of currency, shedding of government employees, labor law reforms, pace of reforms, etc. etc. Here is a brief excerpt from an interview with Business Times (Singapore) in 1993:
Q: From the private sector to the public sector. You've mentioned that you'll phase out subsidies to India's loss-making public sector companies after 1994-95. What will happen to these companies after you do that?
A: Some of them have taken notice and started improving their performance. For example, Coal India is now entirely self-sufficient. The Steel Authority of India has also ceased to depend on the Budget. Those who can adjust and adapt have been warned, and it has had a healthy effect. Some are not able to help themselves. They will have to shed some activities. Maybe some activities have to be revived and we will help them do that. But those that are inherently unviable will simply have to be closed down. Shedding of labour will be part of the process of adjustment, and that's why we have the National Renewal Fund, which provides resources to some of these concerns for retraining, redeployment and compensation.
Q: What are you doing to reduce political interference in the public sector?
A: In the private sector, delicensing and the reduction of discretionary controls has reduced the scope for political interference, and what applies to the private sector also applies to the public sector as far as their reporting systems and their expansion are concerned.
But quite honestly, I haven't discovered a foolproof golden rule for establishing an arm's length relationship between the government and public enterprises. Even when you give autonomy to people, the fact that, ultimately, the government appoints the top executives, or renews their appointments means that these executives don't like to exercise their autonomy; they like to play safe. These are psychological barriers. So there are no easy solutions. [...snip...]
[W]e will offer for sale up to 49 per cent equity in well-functioning public enterprises. That will introduce a greater element of public accountability. I hope that gradually we can build on all this.
That was in 1993. Actually doing everything he set out to accomplish proved difficult, and critics in the mid-1990s said that the reforms were going too slowly. Indeed, in 1996, before the Congress Government folded, many of his reforms were still only partially in effect, as this profile in BusinessWeek suggests:
India also must come up with a policy to deal with the state sector. Although a handful of public companies are well run, the overall return of capital on the nearly $ 30 billion invested in them is only around 2%. About 200 of the country's 220 centrally owned companies are chronic money-losers. The situation is even worse at the many companies owned by individual states. Many of the state irrigation and electricity companies don't even recover a fraction of their costs, and about 75% of them have negative net worth. Heavy borrowing by government companies -- $ 60 billion from the central government alone -- drives up interest rates throughout the economy.
Despite a program launched in 1991 to whittle down state ownership, only about $ 3 billion has been raised to date in sell offs. An international offering of four companies late last year flopped, with fund managers grumbling that the stakes sold were too small to inspire any confidence that the share sales would mean a managerial transformation.
With interest payments swallowing just over half of government revenues -- and nearly equivalent to the sizable fiscal deficit of 5.6% of GDP -- a radical privatization program would free up massive resources for social spending and infrastructure. Selling off the state sector would let the central government eliminate net borrowing. But even the reformist Singh vows the government will stick to its policy of keeping at least 51% ownership of most state companies. ''I'm not sure all the people in power understand the magnitude of the problem,'' says R.C. Bhargava, managing director of Maruti Udyog, a carmaker that is a successful government-Suzuki Motor Corp. joint venture.
After Manmohan Singh's tenure ended, successive governments have progressively implemented the reform policies he initiated in 1991-1992. Some of the problems that were apparent in 1996 have dissipated, but others remain. This (economic policy) is most definitely not my strong point; I'll be curious to see what others think, and also how the new government decides the policies it will pursue.
Manmohan Singh himself ran unsuccessfully for the Lok Sabha (Lower Parliament), and then served in the Rajya Sabha (Upper Parliament), representing the eastern state of Assam. There he served as Opposition leader, but nevertheless maintained a relatively low profile (most of the real political power in India is centered in the Lok Sabha). Manmohan did have a small public run-in with L.K. Advani in 1999 over the question of Advani's role in the razing of the Babri Masjid. Advani came out on top in that event, deflecting the attacks on his own chraracter by suggesting he would initiate a new probe into the massacres of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi's assasination in 1984. This was designed to embarrass Manmohan Singh -- some Congress members who remain in the upper leadership may have been complicit in those events. But it was resolved through a round of apologies, and remained, on the whole, a rather minor affair.
Going from a relatively low-profile stint in the opposition to Prime Minister will be a major turn-around and a first for India. Is Manmohan Singh, with his academic training and his distaste for hardball political gamesmanship, really the right person for the job? Time will tell (I wish him luck).
Manmohan Singh on WTO, Globalization
I found this interview on PBS. The most interesting part to my mind is the section where he responds to the anti-WTO movement at Seattle.
INTERVIEWER: What's your reaction to the anti-capitalist, anti-WTO campaign, and its legitimacy?
MANMOHAN SINGH: Let me say that there are people in the West who would like to further go on the road to rewrite the rules of the game. The needs of U.S. labor, for example, all this talk of introducing labor standards into WTO negotiations, environmental standards. These are non-trade issues. The American attempt at Seattle to introduce these extraneous issues really created serious doubts in the minds of many developing countries that new protectionism was back in the West in the guise of labor standards, social standards, and environment. I sincerely believe that the West should resist using the WTO as an instrument to promote these causes. This is not to say that labor standards are not important, our environmental standards are not important, but we have international institutions. The ILO [International Labor Organization] isthere; the UNIP [United National Independence Party] is there. Those things should be dealt with in those [organizations]. But to do these things as sanctions in trading relations will perpetuate the inequities of the present trading system, where the stronger countries always dictate the rules of the game.
He comes out pro-free trade in the pure sense. He's not especially interested in the protestors, but he is highly aware of the ways in which international trade agreements are slanted to benefit the interests of wealthy countries.