Singh's Last Sigh; Statistics, Optics and the Harsh Reality

Published: 20th April 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th April 2014 12:28 AM   |  A+A-

It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you. Batman Begins, 2005.

It is an axiom that will ring a bell for aficionados of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It is also a maxim that effectively defines leadership. In politics, it is not just what you do but also what you do not or fail to do that you are defined by eventually.

Over the past week, the office of the PM, and his acolytes, have been at pains to burnish the legacy of Manmohan Singh. On Friday, the PMO re-purposed and re-presented a ladder of numbers as an argument to bolster the achievements of 10 years—that per capita income had gone up, that per capita expenditure had gone up, that Sensex had vaulted five times to 22,000-plus, that wages were up, that food grain output was up… and so on.

Yes, India’s per capita income grew 2.5 times from $630 in 2004 to $1,550 in 2012 (World Bank Data). The difficulty in the definition of any achievement is relativity. How did India do relative to its BRICS peers? Per capita income of China went up from nearly four times, that of Brazil 3.5 times, that of Russia 3.7 times, and that of Indonesia trebled from $1,090 to $3,420. Indeed, India has done just better than what the World Bank groups as sub-Saharan Africa where per capita incomes have gone up from $ 627.44 to $1,349.64 between 2004 and 2014.

Per capita incomes would have been higher if growth had been sustained.  Thanks to the autonomous anarchy in the Cabinet, clearances were blocked and growth stalled. It is estimated that over 2,200 investment proposals worth `12 lakh crore in the private sector dating to 2008 are outstanding, stalled or abandoned. Is it any surprise that manufacturing output has been hovering around negative for three years? India’s economy was also shackled by inflation caused by the entitlement epidemic. Yes, there was a slowdown globally, but that doesn’t explain the halving of GDP growth from 8-plus per cent to 4-plus per cent.

There are other claims for glory too. The rights to information, employment, education and food security followed up by more numbers on gross enrolment, credit for farmers, higher health care outlays, higher life expectancy, initiatives for skill development and even a startling one about declining unemployment.

The problem with operation burnish is that there is a constant juggling of policy and of outcomes, between intent and achieved results. Let us look at one aspect: hunger. There is much talk about food grain output, wage rise, consumption expenditure and right to food security. India is the only large democracy outside Africa among 19 countries with alarming levels of hunger worse off than Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Djibouti, Niger and Congo. In 2004, Malawi was ranked 94th and India 96th of 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index. In 2013, Malawi is ranked 40th and India is 63rd of 78 countries.

Sure, spending across social sectors on health, education and human development has shot up from `1.75 lakh crore in 2004-05 to `7.10 lakh crore in 2012-13 (Centre plus states). Despite this, India’s ranking on the UN Human Development Index slipped from 127th in 177 countries in 2004 to 136th in 186 in 2012. For the many acronym schemes that India boasts of in the area of education, it lags in both literacy and in mean years of schooling (which delivers higher growth). Forget China, in literacy, India trails Cape Verde, Vanuatu and Tajikistan and is behind Ghana and Kyrgyzstan in mean years of schooling. The point is achievement cannot be simply about sheer spending. The government cannot merely be a teller counter that spews out outlays with no accountability for outcomes.

The reason why India didn’t do better is located in the political arrangement which has led to the arraignment of this regime. By definition, the leadership is required to take risks and deliver. Theoretically, the UPA did what the NDA did before it—allocated spectrum, allocated coal blocks sans auction, for instance. The reason why order didn’t collapse under the NDA is because is because there was due diligence and ownership of decisions.

The UPA regime was marked by a remarkable absence of ownership. Whether it is the controversy over the imposition of President’s Rule in Jharkhand, the explanation of the many scams, the defence of government policy before constitutional bodies, the buck just didn’t stop, it was sent into a spin. When the anti-corruption movement took off, the government neither assured agitators nor countered them. The many blockades in Parliament were consequences of political vipassana practiced by the government. When young girls and boys took to the streets against assault and rape of women, the chief executive was neither heard nor seen. Yes, there was the nuclear deal which made Singh the King, but the one time the regime stood up to be counted is really the exception that proves the rule.

In a democracy, the government of the day—regardless of the arrangement—is obliged to explain decisions and indecisions. It is what bestows legitimacy to the regime and it is what the UPA squandered.

Fate, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says, is nothing but deeds committed (or omitted) in a prior state of existence.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change


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