He has been called weak by his critics; others have called him indecisive; previous admirers now turned into doubting Thomases have said that he has lost his touch. He himself has conveyed the impression through his silence that he is a prisoner of circumstances. But Manmohan Singh, by announcing a slew of reform measures, has proven everyone wrong. He has demonstrated that the compulsion of coalition politics has not driven iron into his reformist soul. He has carried the agenda of economic reforms many steps forward by the announcements on Friday evening. But more important, his decisions have lifted the pall of gloom that had descended because of the popular perception that India was saddled with a government incapable of governing. The sense of drift, of a government without direction, has been removed in one stroke. Sceptics might continue to ask why Mr Singh waited so long and why he allowed his reputation to suffer. Such questions are ungracious at the moment. The prime minister must have had his own sense of timing. What is important is that necessary steps have been taken to bring the economy back on the growth path.
The decisions taken by Mr Singh are not without political risks. The United Progressive Alliance has within it political formations that are opposed to the steps announced and even to economic reforms in general. Mr Singh has faced opposition before on different issues and from different quarters. During his first term as prime minister, his most important foreign policy initiative — the Indo-US nuclear deal — was nearly scuppered by the steadfast opposition of the Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Mr Singh’s response was simple and firm: he placed what he thought was best for the country above the pressure of coalition partners. He could be facing a similar situation now in his second innings as prime minister. All his supporters and admirers will hope that he has the courage to stand by his decisions even if this jeopardizes the future of the coalition and even that of his government. He must not lose sight of his priorities that revolve not around survival but around governance.
Mr Singh has cut the umbilical cord that linked his government with passivity. Decisions in the economic sphere should be the harbinger of radical changes in other realms of governance. Words of criticism should be answered with decisive deeds. Comrades might raise the flag of protest, the mercurial chief minister of West Bengal might take to the streets and the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party might hurl the choicest pejorative epithets but Mr Singh has shown that the government moves and that he is in charge. The best of his premiership, second term round, is yet to be. Keep that turban on Mr Singh. India expects.