Business, Economics and Jobs

India's Manmohan Singh: Poodle or "Super Bureaucrat"


Poodle or Super Bureaucrat? The foreign press pool's slams on Manmohan Singh have stirred a (pointless) national debate.

This time it's the UK's Independent. But India has again overreacted to foreign criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A half-dozen English papers have highlighted the UK daily's article -- in yet another round of cyclical regurgitation.

Like this post, the Independent article was really about the so-called "controversy," and excessive press coverage, generated by Time's Asia cover story that called Singh "The Underachiever." 

Last week, in the latest insult heaped up the 79 year old premier, Time magazine, which only in April placed him 19th in its list of 100 most influential world figures, splashed the front cover of its Asia edition with a forlorn image of Mr Singh and the headline "The Underachiever", writes the Independent's South Asia correspondent, Andrew Buncombe. "India is stalling," the magazine claimed. "To turn it around, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must emerge from his private and political gloom."

Somehow, this bland repetition -- the "news" here is only that Indians, particularly opposition parties, have picked up Time's "underachiever" tag and bludgeoned Singh with it -- morphed into the argument that the Independent was also piling on. 

Fair enough, though it was apparently changed subsequently, the UK paper's headline initially ran "Manmohan Singh - India's saviour or Sonia's poodle?" according to this report in India's Economic Times. And there's nothing inherently wrong, factually or editorially, in either the Independent story or the follow-ups.  

But hasn't it grown a bit absurd? First Time writes an article that essentially summarizes the Indian press's assessment of Singh's tenure -- namely, that he hasn't lived up to expectations based on his earlier role as reforming finance minister in the 1990s. Then the Indian press picks up on this regurgitation as a new story, and opposition parties sing out in echo, as though they've always known that the foreign press is the best and most impartial observer of Indian politics. Then the Independent (yes, like this blog post) regurgitates that reaction, and the Indian press slurps up the "poodle" tag and regurgitates the story once more.

Now, there's a journalist roundtable planned for Indian TV, where members of the foreign press will be invited to provide more derogatory terms for the Indian PM. What a waste of air time!

Everybody has known that Singh is not fully the master of his own office since he took the prime minister's chair in 2004, and we've been running this loop about his failure to bring in any big ticket economic reforms for at least the past three years, if not longer. 

But what about a realistic assessment of what he's done in office given the constraints he faces -- including not just a weak coalition, but his own liabilities as a politician?

For that, FirstPost gets it right. Describing Singh as a "Super Bureaucrat" rather than a poodle,  R Jagannathan writes that "in the current political interregnum between Pranab Mukherjee’s exit and Sonia Gandhi’s next political move before the next general elections, Manmohan Singh has a small window of opportunity to be truly boss of the bureaucracy – and that is what he is doing."

Calling attention to another article in the Economic Times, Jagannathan observes that  "Singh is using more bureaucratic committees to find technocratic solutions to policy issues" rather than relying on his political ministers. In other words, he's working behind the scenes to get things done, regardless of what the politicians say or do -- exactly as he would do if he were a top bureaucrat and Sonia Gandhi were the prime minister.

As Jagannathan puts it: "Manmohan Singh is doing what he is best at: being a Babu (bureaucrat) rather than a Neta (leader). As a Neta he was an Underachiever. As a Babu he is Topdog – and not a Poodle."