Manmohan Singh Is King At G20

Manmohan Singh is king at G20

By Haroon Siddiqui - Editorial Page - Toronto Star - Saturday, June 26, 2010

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Haroon Siddiqui (left) with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.


The fragile world economy needs more stimulus spending, not cutbacks, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Star in an exclusive interview.

Wading into the hottest topic of the G20 summit, he sided with Barack Obama against German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron, who have both launched cutbacks and austerity programs to control mounting deficits and debts.

Without naming names, Singh made it clear where he stands: “My own feeling is that early fiscal retrenchment carries very considerable global risks” of jeopardizing worldwide economic recovery.

“The purpose of G20 should be to ensure that the momentum of recovery is sustained and enhanced in the years to come,” he told me.

Singh is the only professional economist among the 20 leaders at the summit.

He is the leader of the world’s biggest democracy and second largest nation with 1.3 billion people and a $1 trillion economy, about the same as Canada’s but growing at about three times the rate and projected to become the world’s third largest economy.

I met Dr. Singh, 77, at his residence in this grand and legendary capital of magnificent monuments and red stone buildings from the British Raj, the Mughal Empire and the ancient Hindu civilization — a sublime fusion of the East and the West.

He covered a range of topics, besides the G20 — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India’s economic and geopolitical clout and its relations with Canada.

He responded readily and directly, in person and in writing, to the many questions I posed him:

  • He complained of “Sikh extremism” in Canada, and charged that Canadian Sikh extremists “have links to or are themselves wedded to terrorism.” He will be raising the issue with Harper Sunday.
  • He suggested that Canada and other NATO members should not abandon Afghanistan next year. Doing so would “only embolden the radical forces opposed to the emergence of a peaceful, pluralistic and democratic Afghanistan.”
  • He praised Canada’s “well-governed economy,” its “exemplary” banking system and strong financial regulatory regime. That allowed Canada to escape the financial crisis relatively unscathed, just like India. Both can now contribute to the world economic recovery.
Singh speaks softly and succinctly. Unlike most politicians who yap and yearn for attention, he’s economical with his words and focused in his replies. Modest, he dislikes the limelight.
He did not even seek political office, but was recruited to it.

A Ph.D. from Cambridge, a former professor of economics who served as the secretary-general of the South Commission in Geneva and then as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, he was named finance minister in 1991 (and concurrently a member of the upper house of parliament).

The free market reforms he introduced are widely credited for unleashing India’s economic miracle.

Despite his age and heart surgery, he says “there’s no question of my retirement.”

He is a Gandhian figure, who, like the great Mahatma, is very much of this world but seemingly unsullied by it.

In a land rife with corruption, Singh’s honesty is legendary. For decades, he drove himself to work in his beat-up car from his modest house.

Upon becoming prime minister in 2004, he was moved for security reasons to a grand 1930s whitewashed bungalow with high ceilings and wooden floors, sprawling lawns, mature trees, and compound walls.

Known for his punctuality and courtesy, Dr. Singh saw me there, on the dot at the appointed hour, greeting me standing, his folded hands raised in the Indian namaste.
Here’s what he said.

Canadian Sikh militancy

Singh, a Sikh himself, has urged Stephen Harper, in at least two of his three bilateral meetings, to crack down on Sikh extremists in Canada.

Such Indian complaints date back to the 1985 Air India bombing which killed all 329 on board, the worst terrorist atrocity in Canadian history.

This being a different era and a different generation of Sikhs, I asked how seriously India perceives the problem of Sikh extremism to be in Canada at this time. Singh replied:

“Sikh extremism, separatism and militancy were a problem in India more than two decades ago. Today, Punjab is at peace and there is growth and prosperity.

“There are, however, some elements outside India, including in Canada, who try to keep this issue alive for their own purposes. In many cases, such elements have links to or are themselves wedded to terrorism.

“Their activities are a reason for both governments — in India and in Canada — to be concerned.

“We have sensitized the Canadian authorities in this matter. We have been pointing out that Sikh extremism in Canada, which has no support in India, is not good for Canada.

“We feel that vigilance and close co-operation between both governments on the issue is necessary.”

Some Canadian Sikhs may glorify the “martyrs” of the lost Khalistan separatist cause in the Punjab. But the majority remains estranged from India over India’s failure to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 1984 mob attacks on innocent Sikhs in New Delhi in the aftermath of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

Singh’s response:

“It is not correct to say that India has failed to bring the perpetrators of the 1984 attacks on Sikhs in New Delhi to justice. A judicial commission was set up to look into these attacks.

Recently, one of the cases was heard in the Delhi Sessions Court on the basis of the charges framed by the Central Bureau of Investigation.”

G20 economic woes

Making the case for continued stimulus spending, Singh said:

“I think the purpose of G20 should be to reach a broad-based agreement about coordinating macro-economic policy in a manner in which the momentum of recovery can be sustained and enhanced in the years to come, at the same time not giving scope to an inflationary bout which nobody wants.

“But right now, the danger of deflation in the global economy is, in my view, much greater than the danger of inflation.”

Asked if he is optimistic or pessimistic, given the Greek bailout and the impending crises in Portugal and Spain, he said:

“Quite honestly, I think the world economy is faced with a number of uncertainties. As it was gradually getting out of the deep depression or deep recession, we’ve had the Euro-zone crisis and the sovereign debt crisis.”

How Europe manages its affairs is “going to be a major determinant of which way the world economy evolves.”

Both Canada and India escaped the worst of the economic meltdown because they had strong financial regulatory frameworks. Both oppose the proposed bank levy to pay for future bailouts. Singh feels both are well-positioned for the future.

“Canada is a well-governed economy. The Canadian banking system’s performance has been exemplary. It has been free of the aberrations of the Anglo-Saxon banking system.

“We (in India) also escaped that sort of calamity. Our banking system was well regulated, remains well regulated. We do not fear for our banking system being vulnerable to that type of crisis.

“Now there’s a fear that the Euro-zone and European Union banking system may also be somewhat more vulnerable than envisaged earlier.”

While the financial crisis has been caused by the West, sans Canada, countries like India do get affected, he said.

“Therefore, the real challenge before the world is the equitable management of the increased global interdependence of nations. And I think that is the principal task of the G20.”

India’s economy was galloping at nearly 9 per cent a year, then dipped to 6.7 per cent in 2008-09 but has rebounded since to 8.5 per cent this year and is projected to reach 9 per cent in the years ahead.

“Let me say that India can play its role in the world economy by sustaining the growth momentum . . .

“But we are vulnerable. If the world economy goes into the wrong sort of gear, I think that will create problems for us. Capital flows can be affected. If so, they create their own consequences.

“So, we have a vested interest in an orderly evolution of the global economy.

“We would like the rich countries to sustain a recovery and avoid premature ups and downs of the type which have been experienced since 2008.”

Canada-India links

Singh and Harper are slated to sign four agreements Sunday — nuclear cooperation, mining, higher education and culture. They are aiming to increase bilateral trade from $5 billion a year to $15 billion. As with China, Harper had a slow start with India but has warmed up to the task (which offers him the partisan side-benefit of wooing Indo-Canadians towards the Conservatives, something he will do Sunday at a gala dinner for Singh and the community).

Canada has been slow to catch up on the civilian nuclear bonanza in India. Following the U.S. decision in 2008 to enhance civilian nuclear cooperation with India, New Delhi has done deals with American, French and Russian companies to build nuclear reactors in India.

Canada hopes to sell uranium as well as nuclear technology. There’s also talk of Canada and India cooperating in nuclear energy business ventures in Africa and other parts of the world.

Singh said: “We regard Canada as an important partner in this endeavour. India has an ambitious program of development of nuclear energy and I see vast opportunities for Indo-Canadian cooperation.

“Given our mutual strengths, we could certainly look at cooperating in other areas of the world.”

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.



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