India’s Lethargy Causes Global Anxiety

The new president will deliver more of the same when the country desperately needs new, bold thinking.

India’s new president, Pranab Mukherjee, is the epitome of the country’s politics—cautious and careful—at a time when India needs new thinking, creative reforms and bold initiatives. The world also needs a bolder India and has a huge stake in whether New Delhi can shake its lethargy.

Mukherjee has been a fixture in Indian politics for decades. Born in Bengal in 1935, he has served as a cabinet minister in Congress Party governments since the rise of his first mentor Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He was a star in her cabinets in the 1970s and 1980s. He served the “Iron Lady of India” so efficiently that he believed he should get the top job when she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. But the Congress Party does not work that way. Power in the party comes from the Gandhi dynasty, and so Indira’s son Rajiv got the prime minister’s position in the mid-1980s.

Mukherjee, a graduate of the University of Calcutta, recognized his error and became a mentor for Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia after her husband’s assassination by Tamil terrorists in 1991. Mukherjee urged Sonia gradually to take a larger and larger role in Congress politics and was rewarded after she brought the party back to power in 2004 with another round of cabinet positions: defense, external affairs and later finance.

His performance in these jobs was capable but not inspiring. As external-affairs minister, he presided over the completion of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement and its implementation, a complex diplomatic effort that required great attention. But as finance minister, Indian growth has slumped seriously on his watch, down from over 8 percent when he came into office to just over 5 percent today.

As president, a largely but not entirely honorific post in India, Mukherjee will have little influence on the Indian economy. The job of trying to get India moving again will fall to Sonia and her longtime prime minister Manmohan Singh. Singh was the architect of India’s economic take off after 1992, but he has seemed listless and lethargic in recent years. Mrs. Gandhi has been hospitalized abroad for an unknown illness and seems more interested in preparing her son Rahul for his turn at the top than anything else these days.

So the prospects are for more caution in India rather than bold new reforms in the economy. That is bad news for a country that needs growth to keep making the spectacular advances it has made in the last two decades. A Brookings Institution study last year concluded that between 2005 and 2010, 230 million Indians escaped from below the official poverty line (living on less than $1.25 per day) and that by 2015, another 137 million will do so as well. The graduation of over 360 million Indians from abject poverty in a decade is more than the rest of the world’s progress in fighting poverty combined. It is a faster growth rate out of poverty than any country has ever achieved in history—including China. But more is needed.

Most of the world would envy a 5 percent growth rate, but India has become accustomed to much better. And the world has come to expect much better from India as well. For decades, the Indian economy was a turtle that moved at the so-called Hindu rate of 3 percent or less. That was bad for Indians, but the rest of the world did not really care.

Now it does. Global economic growth needs a strong Indian growth rate. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama called for more reforms in India and more open doors for foreign investment because he understands growth in India is good for America. When he visited India in 2010, he famously said he came looking for jobs for Americans.

Perhaps Mukherjee’s elevation to the presidency opens the door for Sonia and Manmohan to bring in new thinking and bold initiatives. Perhaps Sonia will surprise us again and get the elephant moving. India’s huge potential and its basic strengths are still there, waiting for leadership. The stakes are enormous.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues on the staff of the National Security Council.

Image: World Economic Forum