Manmohan Singh is back in charge of the finance ministry, albeit temporarily, raising hopes of him bringing back the golden era of 1991-96, when India’s growth story began. It is too much to expect that he could simply wave his magic wand and revive growth. At best he might be able to send positive signals and revise the narrative of reforms. Remember, Manmohan had been in government in different capacities for decades. But he got kudos as the FM because he was able to show results with the full backing of the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Why was Manmohan unable to deliver as the PM in these past eight years, while he could project the image of a ‘doer’ as the FM? The answer is simple. Things have changed, times have changed and people at the helm of affairs also have changed, but Manmohan has not changed. He continues to be a good number two, whether he is the PM or the FM. It was the job of Rao to do the political management then and it is the job of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi now.
Sonia is said to be a left-of-centre believer and it is perhaps this that is holding Manmohan back, along with maverick allies like Mamata Banerjee. Whether Sonia was wont to back Manmohan fully or listen to her ‘jholawalla’ NAC advisors is a moot question. The paradox is that if the Congress wants to come back in 2014, it has to be on the ‘aam admi’ plank—and the perception is that economic reforms do not benefit the common man. With elections two years away, it will be difficult to curb populist measures or take hard decisions. Interestingly, the PMO has already fixed the scapegoat and would like to think it was Pranab Mukherjee who was responsible for not expediting reforms.
The tasks before Manmohan are indeed stupendous. First, he has to persuade Sonia to agree for bold reform measures. The second is to persuade the BJP to cooperate in Parliament, as these two parties can push through any measure. The third is to correct the image abroad and take mid-course corrections. The fourth is to boost the confidence of foreign investors and the stockmarket. These are difficult, but the major thing is political will—which is not in his hands. Therefore, the ball is in the court of Sonia—Manmohan’s success as the FM depends on her sweet will and pleasure.
Kalyani Shankar is a senior journalist and political commentator