Business, Economics and Jobs

India: Manmohan Singh is in trouble--so everybody pile on?

India's prime minister may, indeed, be an ineffectual underachiever, as Time and the Washington Post have recently suggested. But to my knowledge there is no evidence that he's a thief -- despite all the smoke surrounding the alleged "Coalgate scam."

Which is why somebody at the prime minister's office, most likely their legal counsel, should be drafting a letter to India Today (and forgetting about WashPo's Simon Denyer).

According to an egregiously misleading article that appeared on the group's website, as well as in its Mail Today newspaper and the website of the UK-based Daily Mail, the PM has been raking it in since he took office in 2004. In fact, the tabloid reveals under the screamer headline, "PM doubles assets in just a year's time," Singh's net worth has grown to about $2 million this year from around $900,000 a year ago (at today's dollar-rupee exchange rate).

In fact? Well, not exactly.

Once you get beyond the headline and an info box that points out that Singh owns a house in Chandigarh, Punjab that is worth $850,000 and an apartment in New Delhi worth $460,000 -- if you actually bother to read the article -- it turns out that not only is there no fire in this implied-corruption story, there's not even any smoke.

Yep. The vast bulk of Singh's supposed fortune comprises an apartment that he bought in 1991 and a house that he bought in 1997. Considering that real estate prices in Chandigarh and New Delhi have skyrocketed since 2002, when I first arrived in India, I would be stunned if Singh's net worth has not increased by ten times over that period.

And the Mail Today knows it, even if it seems to want readers to think otherwise.  The reason that his net worth has increased so greatly is that he hired a new, government-approved assessor to evaluate its real worth, rather than relying on the always-fictitious, government-defined property values, the article eventually explains. 

In other words, he went the extra mile to declare his assets honestly, which the Mail Today notes is rare and says (deep in the article) "Manmohan has set an example this time."

The headline editors, and perhaps the assignment editor who cleared this obvious non-story, have set an example as well. Hopefully, nobody will follow it.