New Delhi: Dr Manmohan Singh’s picture does not appear on the cover of this important book by a distinguished writer and economist-administrator. But the former Prime Minister (who recently presided over its release in New Delhi) is at the heart of the narrative.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia brings to life the impressive performance of the Indian economy in earlier years and does not gloss over the serious charges of corrupt practices and the perceived “policy paralysis” in the second phase of the UPA (2009-14).
The book, which has substantial autobiographical content, is nearly as much about personalities as about policies and programmes, to which field he was a key contributor. The meteoric rise of Manmohan Singh is one side of the picture; the other side reflects Montek’s extraordinary proximity to him and his own phenomenal ascent in government, culminating in ministerial rank as Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission.
No particular effort seems in evidence to salvage the standing of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (long consigned to the archives by his own party) who opened up a political career for Manmohan Singh, an accidental Finance Minister, in his own words, in 1991. Rao’s protégé never looked back, nor did Montek, with Dr Manmohan Singh as his chief mentor.
A more energetic and spirited advocacy of Narasimha Rao was called for.
There are many who would rather credit Rao for the economic reforms of the 1990s. His leadership was backed by a first-rate team in the PMO led by Amar Nath (AN) Varma, Principal Secretary, that was central to the results obtained.
Dr Rakesh Mohan, a former Chief Economic Adviser, has opained: “…the biggest role in the 1991-96 reforms was played by A.N. Varma; he is the most unsung hero…”.
Also, on the scene was Naresh Chandra, an outstanding Cabinet Secretary.
The names of Varma and Chandra do not figure in the list of Acknowledgements at the end; other notable omissions include a former Governor and a retired non-Punjabi bureaucrat, with strong Punjab connections. Both participated in the inner-most confabulations of the PMO during 2004-2014.
Some years back, another well-known economist who, like Montek, was once with the World Bank and ended up as a Cabinet Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee regime, was forthright in his criticisms of Manmohan Singh, even saying that he tried to appropriate credit from Narasimha Rao.
It is, perhaps, a measure of Singh’s leadership acumen that the group of confidants and aides assembled by him has been looked upon as one of the weakest and most ineffective ever.
Serving in the first incarnation of the National Advisory Council (NAC), one was left with the distinct impression that the PMO was never quite comfortable with this body. Its revival in UPA-II did not lead to happy outcomes.
The “mixed” record of the UPA (and the corruption scandals) made it that much easier for the ruling BJP to continue lambasting the Grand Old Party and to expend a good deal of time in harking back to its failures and blunders, as far back as in the Nehru era (1947-64).
Even as Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s very readable book is lucid in addressing a range of issues like the C&AG report on 2G and its repercussions, there are parts that appear somewhat “economical with the truth”, such as in the matter of appointment to the Planning Commission in 2004. The Left parties were vehemently opposed to it and had to be brought around through the intervention of Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet. The author candidly acknowledges that Sonia Gandhi must have “used up some political capital” in helping to push through the appointment.
All in all, this story is bound to evoke considerable interest and attract a wide readership in India and abroad. Had the Congress itself been in better shape today, the book might even have revived, to some extent, the sagging fortunes of select adherents of its First Family.
Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and worked with the NAC between 2004-08