Of Thee I Singh

San Francisco

I would like to point out some elementary factual errors in Martha Nussbaum’s review of Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi, “Gandhi and South Africa” [Oct. 31]. In it she compares India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Gandhi. Nussbaum thinks Singh’s “dignified behavior” must “make Americans wonder how he ever could have won an election.” However, Singh is a member of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament, similar to the British House of Lords), where people are nominated, not elected. In fact, the only time he contested for the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament), he was unable to win the seat.

Nussbaum also claims that Singh, along with Sonia Gandhi, “has refocused political energy on the plight of the poorest, devising the Rural Employment Guarantee and the new Right to Food program.” This is the same Singh who is the architect of India’s neoliberal reforms, which have, since the 1990s, devastated India’s countryside, resulting in massive agrarian distress. Public hospitals have never been in sorrier shape, while swanky private hospitals catering to foreigners and rich Indians are mushrooming.

Nussbaum’s claim that Singh and Sonia Gandhi devised the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is also misleading. As Arundhati Roy points out in her excellent book Field Notes on Democracy: “Ironically the NREGA only made it through parliament because of pressure brought to bear on the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government by the Left Front, and it must be said, by Sonia Gandhi. It was passed despite tremendous resistance from the mandarins of the free market within the Congress Party.” Although NREGA is considered a revolutionary act, it is simply crumbs the state throws to the masses, who are up in arms all over India, for all the devastation the act has caused.



Nussbaum Replies


I am grateful for Sanjeev Mahajan’s views about the Congress Party, which of course are shared by many of its opponents. At the time of the 2008 election, Manmohan Singh had been named as the person who would be prime minister should Congress win a majority, and he campaigned with that understanding (and he was sitting prime minister). So voters knew that a vote for Congress was a vote for him to continue in that office. They voted; the party won; he continued as prime minister. That, to me, is an obvious sense of winning an election.

As for the NREGA: Mahajan does not dispute that it is a laudable achievement; he only claims that it was supported by the left parties as well as Congress. However, the record shows that India’s poor are ill advised, at least today, to rely on the left parties. In West Bengal, the CPI-M (the leading left party) went to defeat this year after years of failure to deliver a reasonable level of health, education or employment; and that party’s compromises with corporate investors, resisted by local peasants, provoked ugly assaults by the CPI-M’s cadres, who shot unarmed peasants in the back (see my “Violence on the Left: Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal,” Dissent, Spring 2008).

I do not say this to praise the new (post-CPI-M) Bengal government, which surely has little to commend it. My point is that the left has not fulfilled its promises to the poor, while Congress, on the national level, has actually crafted and passed a major program, both admirable and practical. This program, as I said, was crafted by Jean Drèze, in collaboration with Sonia Gandhi. I admire Arundhati Roy’s skill as a writer and her moral intensity; but her nonfiction writings are highly polemical and should not be one’s only source of information for such matters.



We apologize for clipping the T off letter-writer James M. Voigt’s name [“Letters,” Nov. 28].