When global credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) described India as possibly the first “fallen angel” among the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, it made a controversial statement in its report. The agency said that “the division of roles between a politically powerful Congress president [Sonia Gandhi], who can take credit for the party’s two recent national election victories, and an appointed Prime Minister has weakened the framework for making economic policy.”
Since then, it has been open season for taking pot-shots at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In a cover story, the Asia edition of TIME magazine referred to Singh as “the underachiever” and said that he was “unwilling to stick his neck out.” Reforms were urgently needed. In their absence, foreign investors were losing both patience and confidence, the magazine added.
A few days later, U.S. President Barack Obama gave an interview to Indian news agency The Press Trust of India. What made headlines in India was Obama’s statement that U.S. industry leaders had told Obama that it was still too hard to invest in India. He didn’t single out Singh, but Indian newspapers did.
Others joined in. Bal Thackeray, leader of rightist party Shiv Sena, called Singh “politically impotent” — a reference to Sonia Gandhi. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, who has shot into prominence because of his association with anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare, described the PM as “feeble.” And U.K. newspaper The Independent pushed the envelope even further, only to backtrack later. According to TV channel NDTV: “A U.K. daily has been dithering online with its headline on the Indian Prime Minister. The Independent‘s story on Manmohan Singh fluctuated this morning between asking if he is Sonia Gandhi’s ‘poodle’ or her ‘puppet.’ It’s now settled on asking if the PM is, as TIME magazine suggested last week, ‘the underachiever.’”
All this adverse publicity for the PM has drawn a response from the Congress. According to spokesperson Manish Tiwari: “This government will get India out of the present trough. We will get back to high growth…. That is the answer to the TIME magazine article.”
The publicity may well have hamstrung Singh’s ability to act immediately. Obama specifically mentioned foreign direct investment in the retail sector. That was one of the reforms waiting to happen. That’s unlikely now. Any such move will be seen as giving in to U.S. demands — unpalatable when there is an election ahead. “Obama’s comment comes on the heels of TIME magazine’s assessment…. These are tactics to pressurize the Indian government to surrender to [U.S.] dictates. This is nothing but arrogant, uncalled-for interference in the internal affairs of our country,” said a statement by Communist Party of India general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy. Obama should not poke his nose in India’s affairs, he concluded.
There was general expectation that Singh would usher in a fresh wave of reforms when he took additional charge of the finance ministry after the resignation of Pranab Mukherjee (who is set to become the country’s new president). Now, some observers are saying that India will have to wait a few months until a new finance minister is found. Will P. Chidambaram, a likely choice, be able to deliver?