Preface April 25 2009: This article of mine has become a victim of bowdlerisation on the Internet by someone who seems to support Dr Singh’s political adversaries. I should say, therefore, as I have said before that there is nothing personal in my critical assessment of Dr Singh’s economics and politics. To the contrary, he has been in decades past a friend or at least a colleague of my father’s, and in the autumn of 1973 visited our then-home in Paris at the request of my father to advise me, then aged 18, before I embarked on my undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics. My assessments in recent years like “The Politics of Dr Singh” or “Assessing Manmohan” etc need to be seen along with my “Assessing Vajpayee: Hindutva True and False”, “The Hypocrisy of the CPI-M”, “Against Quackery”, “Our Dismal Politics”, “Political Paralysis” etc. (Also “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, June 2009). Nothing personal is intended in any of these; the purpose at hand has been to contribute to a full and vigorous discussion of the public interest in India.
THE POLITICS OF DR SINGH
First published in
The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article, May 21 2006, www.thestatesman.net
Manmohan Singh matriculated during Partition, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Punjab University in 1952 and 1954. He then went to Cambridge to read for the BA over two years. The pro-communist Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor were dominant influences in Cambridge economics at the time. Mark Tully reports Dr Singh saying in 2005 he fell under their influence. “At university I first became conscious of the creative role of politics in shaping human affairs, and I owe that mostly to my teachers Joan Robinson and Nicholas Kaldor. Joan Robinson was a brilliant teacher, but she also sought to awaken the inner conscience of her students in a manner that very few others were able to achieve. She questioned me a great deal and made me think the unthinkable. She propounded the left wing interpretation of Keynes, maintaining that the state has to play more of a role if you really want to combine development with social equity. Kaldor influenced me even more; I found him pragmatic, scintillating, stimulating. Joan Robinson was a great admirer of what was going on in China, but Kaldor used the Keynesian analysis to demonstrate that capitalism could be made to work.”
Now, in fact, what was going on in China at that time was the notorious catastrophe caused by Mao Zedong known initially as the “Little Leap Forward” (with a Stalin-like collectivization of agriculture) and then as the “Great Leap Forward”. Mao later apologised to China’s people for his ignorance of microeconomic principles, admitting he “had not realised coal and steel do not move of their own accord but have to be transported”. If what Robinson was extolling to young Indians at Cambridge like Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh in the mid 1950s was Mao’s China, it was manifest error.
As for Kaldor, the Canadian economist Harry Johnson independently reported that “being a man who rolls with the times fairly fast”, Kaldor “decided early on that capitalism actually was working. So for him the problem was, given that it works, it cannot possibly work because the theory of it is right. It must work for some quite unsuspected reason which only people as intelligent as himself can see.” Like Robinson, Kaldor made a handful of fine contributions to economic theory. But in policy-making he exemplified the worst leftist intellectual vanity and “technocratic” arrogance.
Returning to India, Manmohan Singh was required to spend three years at Chandigarh. In 1960, he left for Nuffield College to work for an Oxford DPhil on the subject of Indian exports. He returned to Chandigarh as required by government rules for another three years, and in 1966 left again until 1969, this time as a bureaucrat at the new UNCTAD in New York run by Raul Prebisch. A book deriving from his doctoral thesis was published by Clarendon Press in 1964.
In 1969, Dr Singh returned to India becoming Professor of International Trade at the Delhi School of Economics. A technical survey of mainstream Indian economic thinking done by his colleagues Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty published in the American Economic Review of 1969, made footnote references to his book in context of planning and protectionism, but not in the main discussion of Indian exports which at the time had to do with exchange-rate overvaluation.
After Indira Gandhi’s March 1971 election victory, Dr Singh came to the attention of Parameshwar Narain Haksar, who launched his career in bureaucracy after inviting him to write a political paper “What to do with the victory”. Haksar had been an Allahabad lawyer married into the Sapru family. In London as a student he was a protégé of R. Palme Dutt and Krishna Menon, and openly pro-USSR. He was close to the Nehrus, and Jawaharlal placed him in the new Foreign Service. He was four years older than Indira and later knew her husband Feroze Gandhi who died in 1960. By May 1967 Haksar was Indira’s adviser, and became “probably the most influential and powerful person in the Government” until 1974, when there was a conflict with her younger son. But Haksar’s influence continued well into the 1990s. His deeds include nationalization of India’s banks, the Congress split and creation of the Congress(I), and politicisation of the bureaucracy including the intelligence services. High quality independent civil servants became politically committed pro-USSR bureaucrats instead. Professionalism ended and the “courtier culture” and “durbar” politics began.
Haksar and T. N. Kaul were key figures negotiating the August 1971 “Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” with the USSR, which was to run 25 years except the USSR collapsed before then. Indira had hosted Richard Nixon two years previously, and the Nixon-Kissinger attempt to get close to Zhou En Lai’s China using Pakistan’s Z. A. Bhutto and Yahya Khan (coinciding with Pakistan’s civil war) were undoubtedly factors contributing to India’s Soviet alliance.
As Haksar’s protégé, Dr Singh’s rise in the economic bureaucracy was meteoric. By 1972 he was Chief Economic Adviser and by 1976 Secretary in the Finance Ministry. The newly published history of the Reserve Bank shows him conveying the Ministry’s dictates to the RBI. In 1980-1982 he was at the Planning Commission, and in 1982-1985 he was Reserve Bank Governor (when Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister), followed by becoming Planning Commission head, until taking his final post before retirement heading the “South-South Commission” invented by Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, from August 1987 until November 1990 in Geneva.
Dr Singh joined Chandrashekhar’s Government on 10 December 1990, when Rajiv Gandhi was Leader of the Opposition yet supporting Chandrashekhar “from the outside”, and left when new elections were announced in March 1991. The first time his name arose in context of contemporary post-Indira Congress Party politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Manmohan Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation of India by the Congress Party authorised by Rajiv since September 1990 (viz., “Memos to Rajiv” The Statesman 31 July-2 August 1991 republished here as “Three Memoranda to Rajiv Gandhi”; “The Dream Team: A Critique” The Statesman 6-8 January 2006 also republished here; see also “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform” published elsewhere here, and in abbreviated form in Freedom First, October 2001).
Rajiv was assassinated on 21 May 1991, resulting in Narasimha Rao (who had been ill and due to retire) becoming PM in June 1991. Dr Singh told Tully: “On the day (Rao) was formulating his cabinet, he sent his Principal Secretary to me saying, `The PM would like you to become the Minister of Finance’. I didn’t take it seriously. He eventually tracked me down the next morning, rather angry, and demanded that I get dressed up and come to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing in. So that’s how I started in politics”. In the same conversation, however, Dr Singh also said he learnt of “the creative role of politics” from Robinson, and hence he must have realised he actually became politically committed when he began to be mentored by Haksar — Indira Gandhi’s most powerful pro-communist bureaucrat. Before 1991, Dr Singh may be fairly described as a statist anti-liberal who travelled comfortably along with the tides of the pro-USSR New Delhi political and academic establishment, following every rule in the bureaucratic book and being obedient in face of arbitrary exercise of political and economic power. There is no evidence whatsoever of him having been a liberal economist before 1991, nor indeed of having originated any liberal economic idea afterwards. The Congress Party itself in May 2002 passed a resolution saying the ideas of India’s liberalisation had originated with neither him nor Narasimha Rao.
Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s saw onset of the worst macroeconomic policies with ruination and politicisation of India’s banking system, origins of the Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) public debt we have today, and the start of exponential money supply growth and inflation. Along with Pranab Mukherjee, Dr Singh, as the exemplary Haksarian bureaucrat, must accept responsibility for having presided over much of that. If they are to do anything positive for India now, it has to be first of all to undo such grave macroeconomic damage. This would inevitably mean unravelling the post-Indira New Delhi structure of power and privilege by halting deficit finance and corruption, and enforcing clean accounting and audit methods in all government organisations and institutions. Even the BJP’s Vajpayee and Advani lacked courage and understanding to begin to know how to do this, allowing themselves to be nicely co-opted by the system instead. Rajiv might have done things in a second term; but his widow and her coalition government led by Dr Singh, who exemplified India’s political economy of the 1970s and 1980s, appear clueless as to the macroeconomic facts, and more likely to enhance rather than reverse unhealthy fiscal and monetary trends.