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Economy Jun 12, 2012

S&P's message: Manmohan-Sonia 'power trip' is junking India

By Venky Vembu

In the Doctor Dolittle series of children's books, the author introduces us to the pushmi-pullyu, a two-headed beast that is a freak of nature: a cross between a gazelle and an unicorn, it has a head at both ends of its body. And when the beast tries to move, the two heads steer it in opposite directions. (Various artistic interpretations here.)

The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced "push me, pull you") has over time become a metaphor for anything that is so dysfunctional as to render any movement impossible.

And what the rating agency Standard & Poor's perhaps suggests in its recent report, which warned that India is at serious risk of having its sovereign rating downgraded, is that the UPA-2 government, with its gawky, two-headed power division between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is a hideous pushmi-pullyu that is effectively dragging India to 'junk' status.

The rating agency's report cites the lapses in economic policymaking as the most proximate reason for its downbeat assessment on India's sovereign rating. But, drilling down one level deeper, it traces the roots of this failure to the totally dysfunctional power balance between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

The roots of India's economic problems are in the power arrangement at the top. AFP

"The crux of the current political problem," the report says, is the "nature of the leadership within the central government." Paramount political power, it adds, rests with Sonia Gandhi - who holds no Cabinet position - while the government is led by an "unelected prime minister", who lacks a political base of his own.

This "division of roles", the report adds, has weakened the framework for making eonomic policy. Indicatively, the Cabinet isappointed largely by Sonia Gandhi and leaders of the allied parties, who choose their own candidates for theCabinet posts allocated to them within the coalition. "The prime minister often appears to have limited abilityto influence his cabinet colleagues and proceed with the liberalisation policies he favours (and constantly advocates inhis public speeches)."

But such a pushmi-pullyu arrangement in the UPA was no accidental freak of nature. It was a genetically modified beast precisely intended to work to Sonia Gandhi's political advantage. She remains the enigmatic "power behind the throne" who masterfully wields power without the faintest whiff of responsibility; whereas the flak for most of the economic and political crises that beset the government goes to her front-office manager, Manmohan Singh.

Most of the big-banner policy initiatives in the two UPA governments can be traced to the political philosophy - such as it is - of Sonia Gandhi, which finds expression in expansive, expensive and ill-conceived (even when well-meaning) welfare projects that rely rather more on throwing money at problems. They also show up a cynical attempt at "buying" popular goodwill, and an obsession with redistributing wealth, without adequate consideration for growing the economy.

The results of those flawed priorities are now coming back to haunt the government, but even to this day the government is in complete denial. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, another relic of the Indira Gandhi era with an equally regressive economic philosophy, says he rejects S&P's report and its rationale for the threat of a rating downgrade.

The UPA government frequently likes to cite opposition from allies like Mamata Banerjee and the Opposition parties like the BJP for its inability to undertake meaningful reforms. But the far more serious impediment lies within the schizoid Congress party, many of whose leaders are themselves reluctant to initiate reforms - either out of a sense of ideological hangover from an earlier time or just self-interest in milking the system.

It is to Manmohan Singh's eternal shame that he has allowed his prime ministerial authority to be so eroded that virtually every political ally of the UPA determines policy - and even the choice of ministers - far more than he does as the nominal head of government. But in allowing himself to be used thus by Sonia Gandhi, who reaps the political harvest without having to face any of the flak, he has played right into Sonia Gandhi's gameplan.

The two hideous heads of the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan pushmi-pullyu arrangement may thoroughly deserve each other. But their dysfunctional arrangement is today dragging India to junk status; this tortured country surely deserves better than this.

by Venky Vembu

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