Wagle’s World: Cometh the hour, cometh the Man

Dr Manmohan Singh is the right batsman India could have at the crease at this stage of the match, writes Sameer Wagle

Very few people expected a Congress led government to take office after the last general elections, leave alone someone like Dr Manmohan Singh becoming the prime minister. The defeat of the National Democratic Alliance was seen by many observers as a major setback to the Indian economic reforms – and the last six odd months seem to have strengthened the reservations of the critics.

However your columnist believes that Manmohan Singh’s government is the best government that India could have at this moment in history. Let me explain by using a cricketing analogy.

If you look at the Indian economic story as a 50-over one-day international cricket match we have just about completed the first 15 overs (1991-2005). As in most one day innings the first 15 overs has had its fair mix of audacious and attractive batting, boundaries and sixes. Yes, we have lost a few wickets in this period but overall, the first three batsmen – Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha/Jaswant Singh have created a decent platform with some aggressive stroke play.

However, since the first 15 overs will be coming to a close, scoring runs at the same pace (and with the same style) will become more and more difficult: the field restrictions are over. At this stage of the innings the team needs someone like Rahul Dravid who can graft, build and play a workmanlike innings with singles and twos and be patient to wait and dispatch the right ball, and not necessarily try to hit only boundaries and sixes. Technique, experience and deep understanding of the game are important.

Similarly the Big Economic Reforms story is nearly over now and with it the easier headline-grabbing portion. What India needs now is a leader who appreciates, executes and can sustain the “micro-reforms” which are vital for India — someone who is not afraid of getting involved in the nitty-gritty.

Your columnist believes that with his background and temperament Manmohan Singh, like Rahul Dravid, is the ideal person for the job at this stage. He has the understanding of the system and the experience & patience to push through the right micro-reforms. And the last six months seem to have validated this point.

Most people appear to have overlooked what has been a focus of Manmohan Singh as prime minister – reforming the bureaucracy, an extremely key micro-reform. Whether it is terms of choosing the right person for the job — the prime minister apparently personally met a number of senior bureaucrats before appointing the new cabinet secretary — or whether it is giving all senior bureaucrats sufficiently long tenures to ensure continuity, the prime minister’s stamp and focus is clear.

The Indian bureaucracy is and has been one of the biggest bottlenecks in the Indian economic story. Unlike the politicians who need to be elected once every five years the babus are unelected, difficult to sack, and therefore hardly accountable. Any reform that threatens the status quo and affects them adversely is made to vanish in the labyrinth of the Indian bureaucracy. (In fact this columnist has consistently advocated that an easy way to give an impetus to the de-bureaucratization of the Indian economy is to move the Indian capital from the fawning babu culture of Delhi to the more business like Mumbai or Bangalore. But that should be the theme of a separate column). If India has to continue on the current growth momentum, reform of the bureaucracy and making it business friendly is vital.

That the prime minister realises this and more, is taking active steps to achieve this is heartening. It remains to be seen whether Manmohan Singh will be successful or not but at least we can rest assured that we have the right batsman at the crease.

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