India premier receives laurels abroad and brickbats at home
NEW DELHI — Few leaders are more respected globally than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. President Barack Obama has described him as a historic figure, close friend and valued adviser. (So, for that matter, did President George W. Bush.) When Newsweek ranked world leaders, Singh ranked first, winning praise for his modesty and incorruptibility.
But if he is lauded overseas, Singh is now under attack at home, as critics blame his administration for indecision and inaction. His government is besieged by corruption scandals, runaway inflation and bickering among senior ministers. Amid the clamor, Singh has often seemed silent or aloof, even as his political enemies have portrayed him as the weak captain of a rudderless administration.
The loud criticism of Singh, who sits atop the coalition government led by the Indian National Congress Party, is partly the white noise of India’s raucous democracy, and partly a reprise of old complaints. But the public perception of disarray is one reason the prime minister is expected to reshuffle his cabinet as early as Wednesday.
Many analysts say Singh must recharge his administration to tackle major issues like food security, power supply and infrastructure, as well as to push through reforms on land and governance. More than that, they say, he must seize the moment to address larger, systemic failures in governing that could eventually undermine India’s aspirations to become a global power.
For now, India’s economy is sizzling, growing at roughly 9 percent a year. Many economists are forecasting a long boom that, if handled properly, could transform the nation. But to a large degree, Indian entrepreneurs have learned to thrive despite governmental dysfunction.
“There are so many uncertainties over the next four or five years that if you don’t fix things while the going is good, it is going to be that much harder, later,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research, a leading independent research institute in New Delhi. “Given the historic opportunity that India has, they are frittering away precious time.”
Singh, now 78, usually floats above the rancor of India’s daily politics. Trained as an economist, he is considered a father of the economic reforms credited for setting off India’s current boom. Singh must no doubt operate at the mercy of the imperfections of India’s coalition politics. But his cabinet has witnessed periodic infighting, while the prime minister himself has seemed slow to respond to certain crises, his critics say.