Financial Times, December 02, 2008

Manmohan Singh ensured his place in history when, as India’s finance minister in 1991, he seized the opportunity of an economic crisis to push through radical reform of its regulation-bound economy. Now, as prime minister, he faces a fresh crisis: reforming a security regime that was found deeply wanting by the Mumbai attacks.

But with only a few months before his government must call a general election, Mr Singh may find it hard to shake up an administration many observers say is characterised by drift and introspection.

In spite of his previous success at the finance ministry, there was not universal praise for his decision this weekend to combine it with his prime ministerial role after appointing Palaniappan Chidambaram, the current finance minister, to replace Shivraj Patil as home minister. “Taking over the finance portfolio himself is not a good idea,” says Tarun Das, chief mentor to the Confederation of Indian Industry, who hopes it is only a stopgap measure. “It needs a full-time minister.”

Mr Singh is not a deal-making politician with a strong personal power base but a technocrat who has never been elected to a seat in the lower house, or Lok Sabha, of parliament.

Since he became prime minister in 2004, the conventional wisdom has been that Mr Singh’s scope to push on with economic reform and other policies has been curtailed by Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party’s president who anointed him, and the leftwing parties in the ruling coalition.

Pradeep Mehta, secretary-general of the Consumer Unity & Trust Society, a non-governmental campaign and think-tank based in Jaipur, says: “Manmohan Singh has two problems. One, a lack of support from the left. Two, he is too good a man to be a politician.”

Some observers say a more forceful character might still have made more progress. “The prime minister’s main problem is not with Sonia Gandhi or with his coalition partners – it is that he needs to provide the political willpower to get things done,” Mr Das says.

Formulating India’s response to the security threat provides a good test. The government’s response to previous bombings has been low-key, including appeals for peace between Hindus and Muslims and allowing Mr Patil to stay in his job in spite of complaints about his competence. Since the Mumbai attacks, Mr Singh has talked about a new federal agency to combat terror. But for those frustrated with his introspective style, quicker action is needed.

Mr Das says: “The attacks on Mumbai could be a turning point for the government getting properly tough on terror but only if they seize the moment.” The prime minister “needs to admit he was wrong about terror and push through a new prevention of terrorism bill in the current session of parliament. No one would dare vote against it”.

But for an administration that has largely failed to push ahead with radical reform of the economy or anything else, that would mean a decisive break in style. “I am not sure he has the stamina to get things done,” Mr Mehta says. “In a sense, his is already a government in transition.”

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