His remit was circumscribed, he acted accordingly
To say that Manmohan Singh was not an assertive prime minister is to state the obvious. But if he didn’t push beyond a point, other than on the nuclear deal, it was for good reason—he never won the mandate for the Congress, he was merely nominated to the job; a CEO with a defined limit set by the chairperson of the board; with various CXO positions filled up, and with little power to shuffle his team. The question, as Singh has himself wondered aloud, is whether history will judge him more kindly.
Singh’s failings are well known. He ceded authority—some say, it was never his to begin with—to Sonia Gandhi and her band of social activists, and was unable to control his colleagues, whether in telecom or coal. Though Singh remained personally honest, whenever there was a choice between action and political expediency—to keep a coalition partner happy—the latter won. While collapsing GDP growth was something he could do little about, given the global growth environment, Singh’s record in controlling expenditure on subsidies—the falling savings and capital formation all result from this—is the most damming, given his record as an economist. He was RBI Governor at the age of just 50, was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission after that and was the father of India’s economic reforms—though Yashwant Sinha can legitimately claim Singh stole his legacy—and so should have known better. More so, given how it was under Singh that India pulled the most people out of poverty in its history—by 2.2 percentage points each year between FY05 and FY12—the prime minister knew it was growth that ended poverty, not Sonia Gandhi-style dole.
None of this absolves Singh since, if he wasn’t allowed to do justice to his job, he should have resigned. Certainly his track record would have been a lot better if he had prevented Pranab Mukherjee from bringing in the retrospective tax or if he had resigned instead of allowing an A Raja to allot licences for a song to the chosen few, or if he hadn’t allowed a Jairam Ramesh to stop big projects on somewhat dubious environmental grounds. But posterity needs to ponder over whether India’s track record would have been different had Singh not been the prime minister. The Food Security Act, it can be said with certainty, would have been rolled out earlier, and MGNREGA would have been pursued with more vigour. In Singh’s favour, it has to be said that when he was once again given control after the economy slid to rock-bottom—at 4.5% in FY13, GDP was at its lowest in a decade and inflation at around the highest—he did turn it around. Finance minister P Chidambaram did much of the heavy lifting, but the net result is that the economy was pulled back from what looked like another current account crisis within a year, and the deficit looked a lot better. Sadly, for Singh, posterity will judge him by what he allowed to happen under his watch, not for what he managed to stop. Whether Singh could have wrested control by threatening to resign, whether he stayed on because his ambition got the better of him ... all will remain the unanswered questions of history.