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Is Manmohan bent on skirting economic issues altogether?

Is Manmohan bent on skirting economic issues altogether?

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Free Press Journal

For a man who was thought to be preoccupied with the big picture of the economy, Manmohan has chosen to skirt economic issues altogether, preferring to spar with L.K. Advani on relative strengths and weakness as a politician. More curiously, the Prime Minister appears to have altogether discarded his economists' turban altogether.

Which goes a long way inexplaining the nominal impact of critical thought in our intellectual life, is the collective penchant for deification. It has become customary to raise individuals to lofty pedestals and insulate them from the rigours of inquiry. The undefined "spirit of persecution" and the "unquestioning obedience... (to) some mantra, some unreasoned creed" that Rabindranath Tagore detected in 1921 when proffering his critique of Mahatma Gandhi has not abated in six decades of democracy. On the contrary, the spread of education and the media revolution have, in the guise of celebrating achievement, reinforced the desire to swim with the tide of conventional wisdom.

A small example may help illustrate this distortion. Last week, the Infosys "mentor" published the grand-sounding A Better India, A Better World, a collection of his speeches. In numerous interviews on the book, the pioneer of India's IT industry who, had it not been for a mishap over the singing of the national anthem, may well have been a claimant to the palace on Raisina Hill, held forth sanctimoniously on the virtues of what he termed "compassionate capitalism". It is an idea that is often spouted by social-democratic and Left-wing politicians who are aware of the limitations of statedriven enterprise but cannot bring themselves to admit the innate superiority of the market economy.

Not being a practising politician, Murthy isn't obliged to have a coherent world view. However, it has been rightly presumed that the founder's commitment to "compassionate" capitalism defines the corporate philosophy of Infosys. Indeed, the perception that Infosys is many steps removed from the greed and cronyism of business has contributed to its lofty status in public life. Infosys is the envy of Indian business for its unquestioned ability to secure both a wholesome corporate image and extract generous state support (in the form of concessional real estate) without expending money in either advertising or political contributions.

Yet, last month, Infosys did something that violated every tenet of the "compassionate" capitalism that Murthy upholds passionately: it succumbed to market forces and sacked 2,100 employees, ostensibly on the grounds of "non-performance". In various interviews, its director Mohandas Pai spoke about the company's "zero tolerance" of inefficiency.

In today's economic climate, Infosys' load-shedding is understandable. Throughout India companies have fallen back on closures, redundancies and pay cuts.

Infosys is no exception. What is astonishing, however, is that an otherwise hard-nosed media didn't think it fit to ask Murthy how his "compassionate" capital is including the advice to show "fairness to the less fortunate"-fits into the logic of mass sackings. In the West, they would have grilled him mercilessly and the tabloids would have had a field day highlighting the apparent mismatch.

In India, however, Murthy is a holy cow who must be treated with reverence. Sarojini Naidu used to wonder if the Mahatma knew how much it cost to keep him in poverty. It is worth considering the intellectual compromises involved in casting Murthy in a saintly mould.

This astonishing generosity is, however, not reserved exclusively to non-political achievers like Murthy and, for that matter, Amartya Sen. In the past few weeks it has extended to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

That Manmohan isn't your typical politician and has to be viewed differently isn't in any doubt.

Questions routinely hurled at, say, Prakash Karat, Narendra Modi and Sharad Pawar, (Sonia Gandhi doesn't deign to respond to queries) are, it is understood, inappropriate for India's most scholarly Prime Minister. The consensus in the editorial classes and the intelligentsia is that while Manmohan is untutored in the byzantine ways of politics, the Indian economy is safe in his hands.

The Prime Minister's scholastic reputation has intimidated the less qualified. It is unthinkingly presumed that what is passed off as Manmohan-onomics is built on sound intellectual foundations and, therefore, unworthy of simple-minded scepticism. When, for example, clutching a clipping from the editorial pages of The Telegraph, the Prime Minister pronounced to women journalists in Delhi last month that the BJP was guilty of non-application of mind in promising a "low tax and low interest rates" regime and repatriation of illegal money in tax havens back to India, it was presumed that he knew what he was talking about. After all, this was economics-a subject that the Prime Minister knows intimately.

The reality, unfortunately, is a little more unprepossessing. For a man who was thought to be preoccupied with the big picture of the economy, Manmohan has chosen to skirt economic issues altogether, preferring to spar with L.K. Advani on relative strengths and weakness as a politician. More curiously, the Prime Minister appears to have altogether discarded his economists' turban altogether.

The most striking evidence of this is his steadfast denial of an economic crisis. Manmohan has, for example, stubbornly refused to review its assessment of a modest fall in the GDP growth from 8 per cent to what he claimed in Mumbai on April 13 was "a little less than 7 per cent". Deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who has emerged as the government's chief economics strategist, meanwhile proclaimed in Washington DC that India was set to achieve a 6 per cent growth. Ahluwalia's revised estimate is still better than the World Bank estimate of 4 per growth in 2009-10.

The divergent estimates have a bearing on the election. Manmohan's optimism has meant that the Congress has gone to the people with a campaign that is prefaced on a mood of contentment, even Jai Ho exhilaration. This is so markedly out of tune with the general buzz about job losses, high interest rates, high food prices and belt tightening. There are uncorroborated estimates of some 2.5 job losses, particularly in the unorganised sector, on account of the slowdown. A recent study estimated that the high-growth IT sector may experience one lakh job losses by September. Tax collections have fallen by some Rs 20,000 crore, the fiscal deficit has touched unsustainable levels and the public debt has crossed 80 per cent of GDP. In the last days of April, the official smugness over zero inflation was brutally punctured by grumblings over rising prices of food and anger over the sharp increase in school fees-a consequence of the 6th Pay Commission report.
Had Manmohan admitted the difficulties and chosen to reassure people that sensible policies and patient endeavour would see India out of the bad times, he would have struck a responsive chord. Just as people don't see any magic wand solution to terrorism, there is an overall appreciation that coping with an economic crisis demands mature handling.

Manmohan should have fitted the role of the kindly and avuncular family doctor attending to a patient with concern and low medication. Instead, by denying the illness altogether and choosing to battle on an unfamiliar political turf, he undermined his position as a voice of reassurance The BJP may well have a collective IQ of 60 or less, as the haughty P.Chidambaram claimed last month, but this inadequacy hasn' led to enhanced confidence in Team Manmohan.

The curious thing is that the intellectual establishment has shied away from telling Manmohan that he has done his reputation as an economist a grave injustice. In the academic world, a horrible misreading of empirical data would have prompted derision and accusations of being a charlatan. In the land of the holy cow Manmohan remains untroubled by critical scrutiny

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