The Indian prime minister's in-tray is overflowing now that he has taken over the running of the economy with an election just months away.
Being the head of a government representing more than 1 billion people is already going to be a daunting a task. Add to that running the that country's economy as a global recession looms, smoothing fractured relations with a nuclear-armed neighbor and preventing your country slipping into civil war, and you begin to get an inkling of the challenge facing Manmohan Singh, India's 77-year-old prime minister. One other issue in the back of Singh's mind: India has an election coming up in just five months.
Singh took responsibility for India's economy over the weekend when Palaniappan Chidambaram, who had been finance minister of India for the past four years, took over as home minister. This was to fill the vacuum left by the resignation of Shivraj Patil, whose position became untenable after four days of terrorist attacks in Mumbai left at least 195 people dead, and the government fighting for its political life.
Chidambaram, who had been a minister within the Home Office for two years in the late 1990s, was seen as the only person with enough political clout and experience to take over the post of Home Minister. External Affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was the only other alternative, is desperately needed in his position to deal with Pakistan.
That Singh is qualified to run the economy is without question: he has a PhD on the Indian economy from Oxford University, experience at the International Monetary Fund, and spent three years as governor of India's central bank, the Federal Bank of India. As finance minister under the Congress government of Narasimha Rao between 1991 and 1996, he was responsible for introducing a stream of economic reforms that included privatizing government services and opening up some sectors to foreign investment.
However, last week's brazen attacks that focused on two luxury hotels in Mumbai has cost the government political capital at a time when it can least afford it. A general election must be held by April next year, and the government had already been struggling against the rival Bharatiya Janata Party.
Though Singh has already pledged to toughen the country's anti-terror laws, opposition leaders have begun to question not only how the militants were able to arrive in Mumbai by sea, but also how the attacks were able to continue for as long as they did, and with such high a death toll. "Our Politicians Fiddle As Innocents Die," read the headline in the Times of India on Sunday, summing up the mood of many across the country.
The first big indicator of the political damage that has been done will come on Dec. 8 when the results of six state elections, including Kashmir, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, will be declared. Before the attacks, the incumbent BJP state governments in Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh had been polled to lose, so a defeat of Congress would be a hefty blow, and a sign of what to expect in the general election.
(Vidya Ram, Forbes.com)