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Economy Jul 9, 2012

Underachiever? In fact, Manmohan has excelled himself

By Venky Vembu

The most striking aspect of Time magazine's cover story on Manmohan Singh, which brands him an "underachiever", is that other than that harsh tag, there's little that is new in it. The article is a faithful summation of Manmohan Singh's life and career progression - from his roots in the Pakistani village of Gah (where he studied by candlelight and where he is evidently much loved to this day) to his rise through the bureaucratic ranks to become, by a quirk of circumstances, India's Prime Minister. But even the joke that it narrates to illustrate Manmohan Singh's reticence - his reluctance to open his mouth at the dentist's chair - is familiar to anyone who has followed contemporary political commentary in some detail.

The Congress has responded with extraordinary agility to Timemagazine's characterisation of Manmohan Singh as an "underachiever". Party spokesperson Manish Tewari has pointed, somewhat fancifully, to the UPA government's record of having offered "political stability, social harmony, internal cohesion, economic growth and a greater role in global affairs" as evidence that Manmohan Singh was far from being an "underachiever".

Manmohan Singh is hardly an underachiever.

It isn't often that one is in agreement with Manish Tewari, who has in the past exhibited an extraordinary ability to implant his foot in his mouth. But on this occasion, one concurs with his claim - even if not with his reasoning - that Time magazine was entirely wrong to dub Manmohan Singh an "underachiever".

In fact, Manmohan Singh has risen far above his paygrade, to a station in life where, as Firstpost had noted earlier, he validates the Peter Principle.

That principle, as propounded by "hierarchiologist" Lawrence J Peter, states that every person rises to his or her level of incompetence. Peter framed his theory in an organisational context: he argued thatin an organisation where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, that organisation's members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. At which point, the members' failings become glaringly apparent.

Illustratively, a great salesman may not make a great sales manager, but success at sales gets him promoted to sales manager - where he fails. Once he reaches his level of incompetence, there is no further promotion. But at even the current level - his level of incompetence - he does damage.

Manmohan Singh's career progression is a graphic illustration that the Peter Principle applies in equal measure in the world of politics as well. He is in many ways primarily an economist who served admirably as a bureaucratic babu, faithfully implementing policies that had been drawn up by the political establishment. In 1991, by a quirk of politics that saw PV Narasimha Rao become Prime Minister (following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi), Manmohan Singh was elevated to the post of Finance Minister.

The country was at that time on the brink of a balance-of-payments crisis, and its stock of bullion had had to be airlifted to Europe to secure a lifeline from the World Bank and the IMF. That happened in the last days of the Chandra Shekhar government, and under the terms of the agreement, the then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha had already drafted the "reform measures" that would have to be undertaken (More on that here and here).

But the Chandra Shekhar government fell abruptly, necessitating general elections, which brought Narasimha Rao, and his financial Sancho Panza Manmohan Singh, to power. To this day, Manmohan Singh gets disproportionate credit for unleashing reforms and stoking the animal spirits of the Indian entrepreneurship. But in fact, thereforms that he unveiled then were the dusted-up version of the proposals that Sinha had already drawn up.

Singh served as Finance Minister for five years, and after the Narasimha Rao government was voted out in 1996, he basked in the reflected glory as the original reformer of the Indian economy. If his career had ended then, and he had retired, he would still have achieved way more than was ever expected of him.

But by another quirk of fate, he became "accidental Prime Minister" in 2004, when the UPA government was formed and Sonia Gandhi needed a political lightweight who would keep the seat warm until the Dynasty could take over yet again.

In that high office, Manmohan Singh had attained his Peter Principle equilibrium: his deficiencies have been glaringly exposed - in the succession of corruption scandals and the grinding down of the economy. Rather than assert himself, Manmohan Singh watched while corrupt Ministers hijacked policies for personal profit, and while the Congress under Sonia Gandhi forgot about reforms and went on a welfarist spending binge, whose malefic effects are today haunting the economy.

Even theburst of economic growth in the early years of the UPA1 government, for which Manish Tewari credits Manmohan Singh. owed rather more to the effect of the reforms that the NDA had implemented in the years leading up to 2004. Today, in response to stalled economic growth, Manmohan Singh is attempting feebly to reinvent himself as the original reformer who is back in midseason form.

With barely a couple of years to go for the end of the UPA's second term, Manmohan Singh's political legacy is being assessed from a historical perspective, and Time magazine's verdict is in. But far from being an "underachiever", Manmohan Singh has, if anything, risen to a level that is way beyond his innate political capabilities. He was destined to be a babu, and would have made a good one. Although unelected (and unelectable, as Manish Tewari said in another context), the vicissitudes of politics elevated Manmohan Singh to the highest elected office in the land.

That's not quite the record of an "underachiever". If anything, Manmohan Singh has excelled himself.

by Venky Vembu

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