Shortly after Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, told the Indian press corps that India was purposefully striding towards 10 per cent economic growth, the Financial Times office in the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi was hit by a series of six power cuts. Off went the lights and the air conditioning. On went the petrol-driven generator at the back, and in came the enervating 45 degree heat.
A year into Mr Singh’s second term, there is a distinct sense that the Congress party-led government is running on the back up generator and not mains electricity. It needs to do more to convince that it has momentum to deliver on India’s promise.
Singh is a respected leader. He has won praise for bringing at a stroke India’s nuclear programme out of international isolation and unlocking the potential of India’s entrepreneurial drive.
At this rare encounter with the press, he placed the bold ambitions of India’s economic transformation and peace with Pakistan at the top of this agenda. Yet noticeably absent was articulation of a plan of action reflecting Congress’s hefty majority at the polls a year ago. In fact, the prime minister ended up answering questions on when he would retire and make way for Rahul Gandhi, the largely untested 39 year old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
The Hindu nationalist opposition has struggled for a response to last year’s heavy election defeat. Now it scents blood again. It has long regarded Singh as a technocrat, unfit for top political office, and has mocked him as a weakling who takes orders from Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party.
Its leaders argue that Singh does not have answers for rising prices, a surge in Maoist violence and corruption in its ranks. It also distrusts the hand of friendship Singh is extending over the Line of Control towards Pakistan.
“The prime minister decided to talk but not to speak,” commented Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader, minutes after Mr Singh had finished speaking. “He decided not to say anything.”
The BJP would be foolish to underestimate Singh. Amid unpromising wrangling with former communist allies, the prime minister pulled out a nuclear deal. Now he needs to find the same sure touch to bring south Asian peace and raise India’s place in the global economy.
Singh stands alongside Nehru as the only two Indian premiers re-elected after a full term in office. For the comparison with Nehru to stick, Singh needs not to speak. He and his cabinet colleagues need to act, and make the most of their time in office.