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Manmohan Singh, Overachiever?

The much-discussed cover of next week’s Asian edition of Time magazine caps a season of increasingly negative coverage of India’s beleaguered prime minister. On the cover, a dour photograph of Manmohan Singh appears with a headline: “The Underachiever.”

Is Mr. Singh’s biggest flaw actually the opposite – is he an “overachiever?” Rather than under-performing as prime minister, relative to his abilities, has he been promoted beyond those abilities?

A theme of the recent criticism of Mr. Singh has involved a re-assessment of his tenure as finance minister during the reforms of 1991 and beyond, which ignited the Indian economic miracle.

While Mr. Singh was originally seen as the architect of the reforms, recent commentary has suggested that the real credit should go to the prime minister at the time, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who gave Mr. Singh the political backing he needed to make the reforms succeed.

The key difference between then and now is that, in the current government, Mr. Singh’s reformist instincts (if indeed he has them) are held in check by the more popular and redistributive instincts of the head of the Indian National Congress Party, and chairwoman of the governing coalition, Sonia Gandhi.

It has become evident that Mr. Singh, who was catapulted into the top job by Mrs. Gandhi, doesn’t have the political savvy to exert his will on his own party’s hierarchy, to say nothing of persuading recalcitrant coalition allies. How else can one explain his inability to deliver on a single major “second generation” economic reform since assuming office in 2004?

There’s a deep structural problem at work here.

In a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, it’s typical for the prime minister to also be the head of the governing party. That’s been the case in the past in India, and in other countries that follow a similar system, such as the United Kingdom (where it originated) and Canada.

In effect, there are two centers of power, not one, and the result is likely to be paralysis, unless the two are moving in lockstep. The current configuration in India demonstrates precisely this danger, with the presumably reformist Mr. Singh stymied at every turn by the populism of the party leader.

Mr. Singh’s failure to make a successful transition from technocrat to politician should not surprise anyone. After all, he’s never successfully won election to the Lok Sabha, the directly elected lower house of the Indian Parliament – in fact, he lost soundly when he ran for office in South Delhi in 1999. Mr. Singh sits in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house whose members are indirectly elected by state assemblies.

Time will tell if the same unhappy fate will befall Mr. Singh and the Congress Party in 2014. Until then, the debate over whether he is an “underachiever,” relative to the high hopes held out when he took office or an “overachiever” out of his depth, is sure to rage on.

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