If the leaders of the free world had a high school yearbook, a picture of India's gray-bearded, blue-turbaned Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, would probably be found under Most Admired. The West in particular seems to see India only as a vibrant democracy on the march to ever greater prosperity, and Singh is its poster boy. During the G-20 summit in 2009, his economic sagacity won him a fan in U.S. President Barack Obama, reported to have called Singh a "guru."
Serious, intellectual and statesmanlike, Singh seems to float above the sordidness of politics. In fact, he's not a politician at all. He has never won an election he was appointed Prime Minister by Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress Party, in 2004. When Gandhi turned to this gentlemanly economist to be PM instead of assuming the post herself, the decision was hailed as a shrewd move. One commentator at the time praised her for delegating the task of running the country to a more experienced manager. Singh's lack of political chops and toughness, however, is now proving to be a handicap. He faces serious though not insurmountable problems tension in Kashmir, allegations of corruption in his party, runaway inflation but he has been unable to assert himself or broker a compromise.
On this year's Republic Day on Jan. 26, for example, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vowed to raise the Indian tricolor in Lal Chowk, the central plaza of Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir. The gesture was an obvious provocation in a place that has witnessed decades of anti-India agitation. Singh called on the BJP to stay away from Srinagar, using what was, for him, strong language. Republic Day, he said, "is not an occasion to score political points ... or to promote divisive agendas." The BJP ignored his plea for unity; it was left to the Home Minister to order the detention of BJP leaders on their way to Srinagar, averting an ugly and unnecessary confrontation.
Singh's government exhibits, too, a lack of political will to crack down on corruption. The Telecom Minister Singh named in 2009 is being investigated for alleged irregularities in the 2008 allocation of mobile-phone spectrum to private companies. India's auditor general estimates that the potential loss to government revenue was as much as $40 billion. Other Congress Party leaders are under scrutiny for allegations of overspending in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and appropriating flats in a Mumbai high-rise meant for veterans and their families. Singh has long been praised for his personal integrity, but leading by reputation hasn't been enough to change India's notoriously lax culture of public accountability. In his New Year address to the nation he pledged better governance. But Singh has yet to take decisive action, like canceling the questionable telecom licenses, and this has hurt his image. Says Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and professor at Delhi University: "There is a fear that the sheen will wear off."
Perhaps most galling, Singh's credentials as an economist have been ignored on the issue for which they ought to be most valued. Food inflation has surged to nearly 17% compared with a year ago. Singh has packed his government with India's best and brightest economists and political scientists. And yet, the Reserve Bank of India has dithered on raising interest rates the obvious way to put the brakes on inflation while slowing the economy. Why? The Ph.D.s have been overruled by the politicians. "Businessmen cannot make profits without growth, government cannot get votes without growth," financial adviser Arjun Parthasarathy commented in Daily News and Analysis. "So the unsaid diktat seems to be that inflation, even if it kills the economy, should not hurt growth."
Singh, who will be 81 when he completes his second term as Prime Minister in 2014, could leave a profound legacy: he was the architect of the economic reforms that have brought years of growth, lifted millions out of poverty and set the stage for India the superpower. But lacking the political will to tackle smaller problems head-on, India's leaders have left the big ones to fester. Only 53% of Indian fifth-graders can read second-grade texts, according to an annual survey of public education. A recent study in the medical journal the Lancet concluded that the combination of chronic disease and lack of public health care threatens to derail economic growth. Singh may be Most Admired, but India needs a political street fighter, not a statesman, if its leader is to be Most Likely to Succeed.