Rising prices dent Indian PM's popularity

Prime minister Manmohan Singh had been considered beyond political reproach, but a huge jump in food prices has put him in the firing line.

NEW DELHI // When the National Congress Party leader, P A Sangma, made a veiled criticism of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at the weekend over rising food prices, it was more remarkable for its rarity than the reason behind it.

Mr Singh has become one of India's most popular politicians in years and these days looks almost immune to criticism. "I have been a very disappointed man," Mr Sangma told a party conference in Goa, in reference to runaway food inflation. "For years, the Lok Sabha [Indian parliament] has failed to produce a prime minister." The criticism, which made front-page headlines, was aimed at Mr Singh's position as an upper house MP elected by the Assam state legislature rather than a popularly elected member of the Lok Sabha.

There is growing concern about food inflation in India, which is home to one third of the world's poor and where food prices rose a staggering 19.75 per cent on the year in December. And until Mr Sangma's broadside at the weekend, only the agriculture and consumer affairs minister, Sharad Pawar - a member of the Nationalist Congress Party - was coming under criticism. Analysts said it was unlikely Mr Singh, the country's first non-Hindu prime minister and only the second in recent Indian history to be given a second term, would be blamed for the crisis.

"Twenty-five years ago, very few people would have believed that we'd have a Sikh prime minister who would come back for a second term," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst and professor at the University of Delhi. And yet, it is the very fact that Mr Singh is not an elected politician that seems to endear him to voters, who also view him as honest in a country where honesty and politics are considered to be mutually exclusive.

Moreover, in a land of brash politicians, the diminutive and soft-spoken prime minister is a leader with little interest in political legacies. Mr Singh is unlikely to worry too much about India's inflation issue given that his track record includes salvaging the cratering Indian economy from a balance of payments crisis in 1991, while forcing through reforms that enabled India's emergence, 20 years later, as a global economic powerhouse.

It is an impressive resume for a poor boy from Punjab, who grew up without a mother, studying by candlelight because his small village inside what is now Pakistan had no power. Mr Singh attended Punjab University before going on to achieve a master's degree and a PhD in economics at Cambridge and Oxford respectively. After returning to India in the early 1960s, Mr Singh launched a stellar career in government, becoming governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 1984 and then finance minister in 1991. The Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi tapped him as prime minister in 2004 after a surprise win by the Congress-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance.

As a confirmed free-marketeer, one of Mr Singh's greatest goals in his second term is to establish a string of free trade deals with other Asian nations, and privatise as many successful state-owned corporations as possible. To maintain his popularity, however, the prime minister must ensure that the dividends of those policies flow to the greatest number of beneficiaries, analysts say. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the 2004 election with its "India Shining" campaign, which emphasised the nation's newfound wealth, because so many voters felt left out.

"India has always been a country of contrasts, but there is something particularly striking about the gulf these days between those who have benefited from the fruits of economic reform and those left out. At times, it has felt like the past decade was one big party - with only half the nation invited," said the Indian author and commentator Akash Kapur. The question now is whether Mr Singh will start to take some heat for the inflation crisis. Prices started rising in 2004 and accelerated quickly after a major drought last year. Rice has more than doubled in price over the past five years, while sugar prices have tripled.

Critics are starting to accuse the Congress-led government of failing to manage the inflationary fallout from pro-poor programmes that have boosted rural incomes, and aggravated supply shortages caused by drought. Mr Singh is unlikely to back away from the very programmes that secured the Congress its second term: in 2005, he was instrumental in securing legislative approval for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, an Indian job guarantee scheme that ensured 100 days work at a minimum 100 rupees (Dh8) per day for any adult in any rural household willing to do unskilled manual work. And this week, government officials said food inflation would drop when the monsoon starts - typically in high summer around June or July. The Reserve Bank of India has also said that it expects overall wholesale price inflation to "plateau" in March.

If these predictions prove true, they could make it difficult for critics to find any chink in the prime minister's armour of good repute. Mr Singh's unassuming competence and integrity has paid dividends in other areas as well. He is known for creating effective relations with global leaders, from Pervez Musharraf to George W Bush. That personal ease helped overcome US objections to India's nuclear programme, lifting restrictions on India's participation in global markets for nuclear technology and fuel.

"What helped him craft these relationships was that he is not flamboyant, he was not going out of his way to impress anybody," said Srinath Raghavan, a policy analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. "He has a matter-of-fact way of doing things, is soft-spoken and not given to pushing himself to the centre stage. And the fact that he has a lot of experience and is an intellectual in his own right, gives him a certain respectability that not many other leaders can command."