Dr. Manmohan Singh: An Evaluation by an Insider
(Devendra Narain’s memoirs)
(I had posted this blog originally on August 5, 2020 on my website www.devendranarain.com . After reading a recent article – “Fifth column by Tavleen Singh: A new Congress President. Really?” – I decided to make my message more forceful. The revised version includes some more anecdotes and excludes what is not relevant now.
In the article, the self-proclaimed “unabashed admirer of Dr. Singh” claims that “had Dr. Manmohan Singh been allowed to function properly as prime minister, it would have been much harder for Narendra Modi to win in 2014. It was no secret in government circles in Delhi during his second term that he could not take serious decisions or make policies without consulting his boss.” She further writes that she has been “an open admirer of the good doctor’s economic policies” and that she has said more than once here that she believes that “the reforms he brought when he was Finance Minister under P V Narasimha Rao transformed India.”
“Dr. Manmohan Singh: An Evaluation by an Insider” should not be interpreted as a critique of Tavleen Singh’s article. Everyone has the right to form his or her opinion for which he or she must have a valid reason, information not available to those who have the opposite opinion. What I have written is based on my personal experience.)
Millions of words have already been written admiring or criticising Dr. Manmohan Singh. Before admiring Dr. Singh as a great economist or expressing sympathising with him for his helplessness before Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, one should know how he worked as Finance Minister and in other capacities in the Government of India. However, very little has been written by those who worked under him before he became Prime Minister. A notable exception is C. G. Somiah, former CAG, who was Secretary of the Planning Commission (PC) under him.
I had the fortune or misfortune of working under him twice, once in 1980 when he was Member-Secretary, PC and I was a Deputy Secretary in the Project Appraisal Division (PAD) of the PC and again between 1985 and 1987 when he was Deputy Chairman of the Commission, and I was head of the PAD. Though I did not work under him later, I got the opportunity to closely interact with him when he was Finance Minister, and I was a Joint Secretary in charge of the monitoring of central projects in the Department of Programme Implementation.
Before sharing my experiences, I would like to make a general observation. Dr. Singh is not a politician, has no political base, no capacity to be a political leader, but had political ambitions. He contested only one election in 1999 to the Lok Sabha from South Delhi and lost badly to a BJP candidate. For holding political posts, he needed political patronage. He was sent to the Rajya Sabha from Assam, a state with which he had absolutely no connection. When he filed denomination paper first time to enter the Rajya Sabha, his address was “c/o Chief Minister, Assam” because he had no house in the state. I understand, later he purchased a house there. He has been a member of the Rajya Sabha since October 01, 1991 with a brief break of 2 months in 1991.
A man weak by nature became weaker to remain in power. When Rahul Gandhi publicly tore up an ordinance approved by the cabinet, any Prime Minister who gave some value to his or her self-respect than to the post, would have resigned but Manmohhan Singh swallowed the insult. In the past too, he had swallowed insults not only by Rahul Gandhi’s father but also by the bureaucrats working under him
Dr. Manmohan Singh swallowed insult by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, not once but twice
In 1985, at a meeting of the National Development Council held to discuss the Seventh Five-Year Plan, Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi strongly criticised the PC (of which he was Chairman) for not appreciating the importance of education. Dr. Singh was sitting next to the Prime Minister on the dais with his head down. He was unable to face the gathering of Cabinet ministers, state Chief Ministers, and officers of the central and state governments. I was also present. During the tea break, the topic of conversation among the officers was whether Dr. Singh would resign. I was the first to meet him when he entered the room for tea. There was no sign of shame or regret on his face. He asked me whether I had taken tea. I answered in the affirmative. He proceeded to meet others.
A few months later, Rajeev Gandhi publicly called the PC ‘a pack of jokers’. There was again speculation whether Dr. Singh would resign. C. G. Somiah has written in his book that it was he who persuaded Dr. Singh not to resign. I doubt that. In my opinion and in the opinion of many others who were in the PC, Dr. Singh was the last person to resign from a high-ranking post. Perhaps, Somiah gave him an excuse to stay.
Swallowed insult by bureaucrats working under him
In 1985 when I was working in the PAD of the PC, my boss, Mr. Nitin Desai, a learned person, left the PC to join the UN. Before leaving the Commission he told me that he had advised Secretary not to impose anybody on me. The reason was that after him there was hardly any senior person with more experience of project appraisal than me and he knew that I would not work under a person who did not know the subject. However, Dr. Singh wanted to bring a favourite who was ignorant of project appraisal. I requested him not to bring such a person but did not succeed. Left with no choice, I announced my decision to revert to my cadre, Indian Revenue Service. Soon thereafter, a couple of senior secretaries including the PC Secretary met Cabinet Secretary and successfully stopped the appointment of that person. Dr. Singh quietly swallowed the snub.
What happened in 1993-94 was even more shocking. In November 1993, without consulting me (he could not have consulted me because at that time I was abroad for a delicate eye surgery), he sent an order to the chairman of the CBDT that I should be recalled from deputation (in October 1991 I had joined the Department of Programme Implementation as Joint Secretary) and appointed Director General of Systems (the Directorate was making preparations for the computerisation of processing of income tax returns). The chairman simply ignored it and told me (after I returned from abroad) that somebody else was on his mind. I did not tell Dr. Singh anything because I was sure that he would not assert. A few months later, I happened to meet him at a small lunch party given by a retired secretary who was teaching management in London. Dr. Singh asked me whether I had joined the Directorate. I told him that had I joined I would have definitely called on him to thank him. Naturally, he asked the reason. I told him the truth that the chairman ignored FM’s order because he wanted his favourite for that post. Dr. Singh’s face remained expressionless, as we normally see. He quietly swallowed the insult. Any other FM would have fired the Chairman, CBDT, for disobeying his order but had there been another FM, the Chairman would not have disobeyed him. The Chairman knew that he could ignore Dr. Singh without any fear of retaliation.
One who had no courage to say a word to defiant bureaucrats working under him could not be expected to even mildly protest when Rahul Gandhi tore up the ordinance.
Dr. Manmohan Singh the economist in Government of India
Dr. Singh might have been a brilliant student of economics but theoretical knowledge of economics is not sufficient to understand real-life economic issues and to solve economic problems. During his tenure as Member-Secretary or Deputy Chairman of PC, I did not find any major contribution by him except papers on the high cost of economy prepared by different divisions of the PC on his order (when he was Dy. Chairman). Those papers were never discussed. Later, thousands of kilograms of papers were sold as scrap.
Many people give him credit for initiating economic reforms in 1991 but several senior colleagues of mine who had long experience of working with him believed that he was merely carrying out orders coming from the World Bank which had been working for a long time to get the Indian market opened to the West. A few supporters of the world Bank had entered the Government of India before he became Finance Minister and were preparing the ground.
The credit to him reminds me of a joke. After a man had saved a child from drowning in a pond, many persons came to thank him and compliment him for his bravery. The nervous saviour said, “it’s okay but tell me, who pushed me in the pond?”
For the same reason, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao too does not deserve credit. He was a week leader not capable of taking harsh decisions especially when other Congress leaders were swearing by socialism. 28 years ago, when thousands of innocent Sikhs were being slaughtered by Congress goons, we had seen how weak a home minister he was. At a meeting of a group of ministers in 1994, I had seen that most of ministers had no respect for him.
Sometime in 1986, one day Dr. Montek Ahluwalia, an Additional Secretary in the PMO, brought a proposal from Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi that the PC should prepare transport and energy models keeping in view India’s needs 20 years hence. The petroleum model, prepared by a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was discussed in a meeting chaired by Dr. Singh. An important part of the model was the calculation of the long-run marginal cost (LRMC) of the production of crude. Dr. Singh himself did not make any comment. He merely asked senior bureaucrats and technocrats to give their views. They all praised the professor for doing an excellent job. I was the last to be invited by Dr. Singh to give opinion. I said that in my opinion calculation of LRMC was misleading because it was based on very limited data which could not be considered representative. This was a big shock to the professor and others present. After some uproar, Dr. Singh said that if what I had said was correct, then the entire model would have to be redone. Later, I learnt that the professor had completely rewritten his report.
I was surprised that why this simple thing did not occur to a highly acclaimed economist?
When Dr. Singh became Finance Minister in 1991, I went to his office in the North Block to congratulate him. He asked me to give some suggestions for improving tax collection. He had to present his first budget in Parliament. I told him that since I was only a joint secretary level officer (at that time I was Director of the Directorate of Organization and Management Services of the Income Tax Department) it would not be proper for me to send any suggestion to him directly and if I sent anything through proper channel there was little chance of it reaching him. He advised me to give him my suggestions informally without my signature. After a couple of days, I gave him three suggestions. I told him that vested interests might oppose the suggestions. He thanked me and assured me that he would seriously consider these suggestions.
After two or three days, a member of the CBDT asked me to see him. When I met him, he showed me the paper I had given to Dr. Singh. I was shocked when I read the first part of what he had written, “Suggestions received from Devendra Narain.” I looked at the member’s face expecting an unhappy reaction, though I had a very good question with him. He asked me to read further. Mercifully, FM had added, “I had asked him to give his suggestions. I have known him for a long time…” followed by a few words of appreciation.
Anyway, two of the three suggestions were included in the Finance Bill. As expected, the lobby of the vested interests became active and one of the two suggestions was dropped from the Bill. What had been included was withdrawn the next year.
As Finance Minister, Dr. Singh was Chairman of a Group of Ministers set up to review problems faced in the implementation of public sector projects. As Joint Secretary and chief monitor of Central Government and public sector projects (I was Joint Secretary in the Department of Programme Implementation), it was my duty to identify the problems and present reports to the Group for solutions. One such report president in 1995 was on the problems in the implementation of road projects. During the discussion, I got the impression that Dr. Singh had not read my report. He was sitting totally disinterested. As expected, the Transport Minister was successfully misleading him as well as the then Deputy Chairman of the PC who later became President of India. I tried my level best to persuade a few Secretaries to correct the Minister but none dared to do so. I could not speak when my Secretary refused to say anything. Later, I went to Dr. Singh’s room to tell him that the Transport Minister had misled him and everybody. His reaction was more frustrating.
Dr. Manmohan Singh the politician
Sometime in 1980, I was asked to appraise a proposal to set up a naphtha-based petrochemical complex in West Bengal. My finding was that since gas-based petrochemicals were much cheaper in the international market, a plant based on imported naphtha would be uneconomical. at that time doctor Singh was member secretary of the PC. When the appraisal note duly approved by my boss and an internal committee of the Planning Commission, reached Dr. Singh, he sent for me. When I entered his room I found him quite agitated. Without mincing words, he told me that my appraisal note had created ‘a first-rate constitutional crisis’ because Jyoti Basu, the West Bengal Chief Minister, was very much interested in the project and such an adverse appraisal note would make him very angry and that he (Dr. Singh) would find it difficult to finalise the state’s five-year plan with the CM. By that time, I had appraised hundreds of projects and quite a few had gone against the political interest or the interest of powerful lobbies but no one had accused me of creating any ‘political’ or ‘constitutional’ crisis. An appraisal note being only an advisory, the government had every right to reject it. I politely told Dr. Singh that I was a mere deputy secretary, incapable of creating any ‘constitutional crisis’ and the government was free to reject my advice. I further told him that instead of getting angry, the West Bengal CM should be happy that he had been cautioned before it was too late. That infuriated Dr. Singh more. He asked me to leave his room. Mercifully, the state plan was finalised without any ‘constitutional crisis’. Later, a naphtha-based petrochemical complex was set up in Haldia and suffered losses for a long time.
Manmohan Singh the politician had no courage to tell the Chief Minister of a state that his (Chief Minister’s) proposal should be reconsidered.
In 1978 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Foreign Minister, I was asked to appraise a proposal to set up a split-location cement plant, part in Nepal and part in India. My finding was that the project was not in India’s economic or financial interest. I had quantified the annual financial loss to the country. I had added that if the government viewed the project as an aid to Nepal, it was a different matter. One day in 1980 (after Congress was back to power), at a meeting in the PC, I heard an annoyed Dr. Singh saying that ‘politicians make all sorts of senseless commitments creating problems for the government’. I found an entirely different Dr. Singh who was once so anxious to please Jyoti Basu! It kept on haunting me for some time before I realised that there was no inconsistency in his stand. In one case he was trying to win the favour of Jyoti Basu and in the other case, he was trying to win the favour of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi because the proposal to set up a cement plant had been mooted by Indira Gandhi’s opponent Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Dr. Singh is basically a weak man, not capable of taking a tough position. Having worked under or with him for several years, I do not agree with the claim that had he been allowed to function properly as a Prime Minister it would have been harder for Narendra Modi to win election in 2014. One who had no courage to take any stand against defiat bureaucrats working under him, should not be expected to take tough administrative, political, economic and military decisions. High level corruption when he was PM was not surprising. He became Prime Minister, not by accident but because of the “qualities” Sonia Gandhi saw in him. He was ambitious, servile, pliable, a Teflon, and knew the art of survival under dominating political masters. Morale of the story is: “STOOP TO CONQUER”.
November 3, 2022