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On February 16, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited the leonine electronic media anchors and barons into his den. The result was mixed for both sides. Dr Singh retained his composure, bore light jabs on his chin, ignoring statesman Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum “never complain and never explain”.

The worthies of the fourth estate pricked not to injure, unwilling to nail Dr Singh with the Commonwealth Games, Chief Vigilance Commissioner and Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) issues, handled by appointees of the Congress or the Prime Minister’s Office. Dr Singh’s argument that excessive media coverage was hurting India’s image abroad merits examination; as also whether it impacts the conduct of external relations-economic and political.
Dr Singh’s concern about the India story is coloured by his predisposition to look at politics through the window of economics. Influential publications like the Financial Times are examining Indian crony capitalism as a subset of liberalisation as it has evolved since 1991. Ironically, this expose, long overdue, comes as the Arab world absorbs the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution tsunami, with masses rebelling against authoritarian structures and nepotistic exploitation of national resources, impelled by demographic youth bulges and unemployment. Dr Singh is anachronistic and in dangerous moral territory if he implies that a positive external image, necessary for continued foreign direct investment and institutional investment flows into India, can be at the cost of underplaying gross financial malfeasance.
Were a P.N. Haksar in the PMO today, he would have quoted a similar dilemma in the US in 1901 when Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt accidentally became the President of the United States after the assassination of President McGinley. He applied the stick to the robber barons, imposing regulatory regimes and oversight in capitalism’s bastion. Businessmen’s greed was weighed against the national interests of a rising power, which became a global hegemony in that century. India stands at a similar juncture. Would it be democratic in form but controlled by competing oligarchies of economic and hereditary political power or a genuine representative state that balances equity with growth and politics with principles?
The two-decade-old economic liberalisation has run its initial course. Flogging it will not make it gallop. The oil-producing Arab world is in actual or potential turmoil. Unpredictable weather is causing crop failures, as in China this winter, or floods as in Australia, bringing stress on global food stocks and hence their prices. Europe and the US are uncertainly emerging from the global financial crisis. India needs labour reform, a second green revolution, transparent regulatory regimes for exploitation of national mineral resources and national assets. Above all, India needs to demonstrably show that there is a rule of law and no one is above it. Imaginably such an India would attract genuine global capital. It would not be, as it is now, a less efficient version of China, but a competing Asian model driven by law, transparency and accountability.
With regard to foreign policy, corruption controversies impinge differently on the ruling elite. It falls into two broad categories. One where the taint is personal to the leader without impacting his official decision-making and the other where it involves the decision-making of the government.
In the first category would be the Lewinsky scandal, leading to the impeachment trial of US President Bill Clinton, as too the travails of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his fling with an underage escort. The 1998 Lewinsky affair left the public approval ratings of Clinton unscathed as every economic indicator was at a 30-year best, with unemployment at 4.4 per cent, inflation at one per cent and fourth quarter growth at six per cent. In the 1998 congressional elections, the Democratic Party gained seats in the House and lost none in the Senate, an unprecedented achievement in the second term of a President. In 1998-99 Clinton handled effectively the aftermath of nuclear testing by India and Pakistan, the Kargil stand-off, besides shepherding West Asia peace talks, almost to resolution.
Rajiv Gandhi highlights the other category where the scandal taints the regime. From 1987 missteps leading up to the Bofors imbroglio had him verily cornered. But as his domestic troubles mounted and key Cabinet colleagues turned foes, he became hyperactive abroad. In July 1987 he dispatched Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) troops to Sri Lanka to enforce the peace accord. Having failed to either disarm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or implement the accord they returned unsung and bloodied in 1989-90. In 1988 came Rajiv Gandhi’s utopian global nuclear disarmament plan at the UN General Assembly. He achieved a breakthrough with China as that country was pursuing a larger strategy under Deng Xiaoping. With Pakistan, despite Benazir Bhutto’s emergence, the talks were stalemated due to mismatched expectations.
Thus, with domestic credibility degraded, his diplomacy failed in the neighbourhood, shining multilaterally, where hope substitutes policy.
Dr Singh’s dilemma is unique as he is still seen as an honest man running a scandal-mired government. He finds solace in approbation abroad. That cannot last unless he fixes the problem at home. There could be no better advice than Disraeli’s in a peroration to his party before his death, urging them to “deliver to your posterity a land of liberty, of prosperity, of power and of glory”.

K.C. Singh is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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