THIS WAS a government that came to power with positive new departures that were pro-people, like the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. What was problematic was the rest of the term, in which the government pursued hard neo-liberal policies that were dangerous for the common man. The logic of these policies has also been rendered tenuous and invalid by the current worldwide recession.
The aftertaste, however, of the Manmohan Singh years is the blinkered determination to ally with the US. This was the unmaking of the government’s alliance, and its foreign relations. We became singularly US-focused, even when it was committing and condoning the worst human rights tragedies in the Middle East and Palestine. US policy was in a shameful phase: Iraq had been conquered, there was war in Afghanistan, prisoners were being tortured, and Israel’s activities in Gaza were being endorsed. India kept quiet. The US pardons Israel’s violence against Palestine and by shutting its eyes to it, India became a part of this appeasement. As the war on terror escalates, the Taliban is gaining new recruits, and India has put itself in the firing line.
As for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, it was proposed with the justification that it would solve some of India’s power issues. As far as I understand it, there are many different opinions about the use, effectiveness and risks of using nuclear power. India did not consider these sufficiently. There was no transparency when there should have been a full-fledged public debate about the use of nuclear power. Instead, it became a political exercise. Many western countries, which had gone in for nuclear power, are now backtracking and giving up its use. So, to go the whole hog for nuclear power may not actually lead to progress. It does not meet India’s massive power requirements. Even if it did, the price that India paid by becoming dependent on the US was too high.
The Manmohan Singh Government overestimated the favours it would accrue by being Big Brother’s friend. But these are matters beyond practical advantages. They’re issues of human rights, morality and ethical foreign policy. It’s extremely wrong to even wonder about a mutually beneficial trade-off.
Moreover, not enough was done to combat communalism. It was left to state governments to do so. What also bothers me is the PM’s civil rights record. He repeatedly said that India’s biggest internal problem was the Maoists — not caste, not poverty, not power struggles. This led to human rights activists like Binayak Sen to be arrested as Maoists.
To correctly judge the Manmohan Singh Government, I cannot but draw a comparison. Manmohan and his team did do a lot of NDA-like aggressive war talk after 26/11 due to pressure from the BJP, but I give credit to them for being mature enough not to really launch a retaliatory attack. The UPA, in my view, did commit certain major mistakes, and those would have been committed by the NDA or any other front had they been in power. On the other hand, the positive measures that the UPA brought in in its early phase would not have been there in case the NDA had ruled instead.
(Sarkar is a historian and professor at JNU, Delhi)