India's new leader: Singh talks of peace and a war on poverty

Posted in Other | 24-May-04 | Author: Jonathan Power| Source: International Herald Tribune

Manmohan Singh
NEW DELHI In electing Manmohan Singh to lead India, the Congress Party has chosen a prime minister attuned to the voices of the rural poor as well as those that “shine” in the information technology sector, a leader who embraces Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and nonbelievers, one who will work to make peace with Pakistan, and one who is determined to put India's economy on course to overtake China's within a couple of decades.

The biggest question mark now hanging over Singh's head is whether his Communist allies will give him the room he needs to maneuver to conduct the economic liberalization on which all other progress in India depends.

Just over a year ago Singh and his wife invited me for breakfast and for an hour and a half we talked about his views on Indian political life. On Sunday I was invited back to the same house - the first foreign journalist he has talked to since his swearing in. For more than a week he has averaged only three hours of sleep a night, meeting with government and political leaders like Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, until 3:30 in the morning. As much as one can discern, it is very much a co-government between the two of them. The longstanding relationship is, by all accounts, easy and comfortable.

“It helps having a European mind.” he said of Gandhi. “She likes to be told things straight, not in the Indian roundabout way.” He credits her with having helped the Congress party recover from its underdog position. “It's her stamina, her interaction in Parliament. She has grown with the responsibility and she has been a unifying factor.”

I asked Singh what he thought was the most important issue facing the country.

“The mass poverty of India," he said. "Our economic reforms are half incomplete. We have to take these reforms to their logical end. Seventy percent of our people are in the rural areas and we have to give them good water, primary health care and elementary education.”

Although Singh says he thinks that land reform will be impossible “without a revolution,” what is important is for “sharecroppers to get their rights established so that they can invest in their land with security. We need to be like the Communist government in West Bengal."

Can India turn an economic growth rate of 8 percent every year, I asked.

“Eight percent would require a Herculean effort," he said. "Our investment rate is too low. But perhaps in five years' time we can do it. If we can attract the same foreign investment flows as China does we can do it. But we have to change the mentality of foreign investors. And we can do that if we have stable policies. Meanwhile, if we can have economic growth at an annual 6.5% in a sustained manner we can make an impact on poverty and unemployment. China's long range rate is probably nearer 6%, not the higher figure they claim.”

“We have to find a way to stop talking of war with Pakistan," he added. "This is stopping us realizing our economic potential. Two nuclear-armed powers living in such close proximity is a big problem. We have an obligation to ourselves to solve this problem.”

I pushed him on how far he himself would accept compromise with Pakistan over Kashmir. “Short of succession, short of re-drawing boundaries, the Indian establishment can live with anything,” he said. Meanwhile, he said, “we need soft borders - then borders are not so important. People on both sides of the border should be able to move freely.”

I reminded him that Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister after independence from Britain, had always promised Kashmir a plebiscite.

“A plebiscite,” Singh replied emphatically, “would take place on a religious basis, it would unsettle everything. No government of India could survive that. Autonomy we are prepared to consider. All these things are negotiable. But an independent Kashmir would become a hotbed of fundamentalism.”

Corruption is endemic in India, and in determining his cabinet appointments, Singh has been compelled to give office to Laloo Yadav, who heads a regional party. In 1997 Yadav had to step down as chief minister of the impoverished state of Bihar on charges of corruption, which are still pending.

Singh won't comment on Yadav but he does say that in recent years, “political power has been passing into the hands of a new type of leadership. And they don't make a distinction between state and private property. Government officials have large discretionary power. We have to deregulate even more so that this discretionary element is much reduced.”

For the self-effacing former economics professor, becoming prime minister is an overwhelming task. He cannot talk more, he said apologetically, “I have to get on top of the issues.”

Jonathan Power is a commentator on foreign affairs.