New Delhi: When P.V.Narasimha Rao became the prime minister in 1991 and Manmohan Singh his finance minister, there used to be a lot of talk in financial circles about the “feel-good” factor. The insinuation was that with a Congress government coming to power albeit lead by a non-Nehru-Gandhi, the hopelessness generated by the regimes of Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandrasekhar had been effectively ended and a new decisive era beginning.

In some ways, this promise was kept. But the hero of this change of script was a most unlikely person called Narasimha Rao who didn’t look the part with his shrunken self and the ever-present pout. In his head, he was pure Chanakya who made his moves with brilliant precision assisted by a well-conceived vision for India. In his reflected glory, Manmohan Singh appeared more than he was, and the journalists who were close to him personified him as “Mr Feel Good”.

Palaniappan Chidambaram was a still more chimerical figure as finance minister possessed with the luck of the devil. He first coasted on the solid legacy left by the Narasimha Rao government and then enjoyed the fruits of the labours of Atal Behari Vajpayee, giving him an undeserved reputation of a great finance minister. This writer was always leery of his record rating him a decent commerce minister under Narasimha Rao but a dud in finance.

When Pranab Mukherjee elevated himself to President (it amounted to that if you know the inside story) and Chidambaram grabbed his corner office in North Block, there was huge expectation from him but this writer was unmoved. His prime minister was a technocrat who did not control ruling politics even if he knew what to do with it and Chidambaram scorned the grassroots. They wouldn’t be able to make the winning combination. But the paid media and those that are overawed by power thought Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram constituted a dream team that would rescue the economy. Funnily, no one wrote about the “feel-good” factor although it should have been logical given the reputation of Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram.

A few things killed that “feel-good” factor if there was any at start. The mega scams starting with 2G destroyed the people’s hopes in Manmohan Singh to be able to stop the looters in his government and in the Congress party and send them to jail. Then Aruna Roy & Co. haemorrhaged the economy with extortionate demands for social-sector spending. The rural vote was ensured this way but it upset the fundamental supply-demand situation leading to food and generalized inflation and further to a ballooning deficit exacerbated by other factors.

As the national economy sank and the activism of the Supreme Court and the Comptroller and Auditor General frightened away the corrupt establishment from decision-making and added to the extant misery of policy-paralysis, business went into fulltime risk-avoidance. Business and especially small and medium entrepreneurs also became victims of the inspector raj which flourished under the United Progressive Alliance government. No economy can withstand such sustained attacks and the growth rate not surprisingly has dipped now to below five percent in more than a decade. What happened to the magical economic leadership of Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram?

Long ago, a fine analyst of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army argued against having a national government in India. “If that fails,” he said, “there would be no hope left.” A similar situation has been created by the ruling alliance. Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram were touted as the best men to lead the economy out of the morass, forgetting that they put it there. Now with their full and final failure, there is no hope left in the present dispensation to be able to rescue the economy. Chidambaram’s way is to bully the Reserve Bank, industry and the rating agencies but these won’t fix the fundamental malady in the economy. The economy is beyond him and Manmohan Singh to repair. In the few months left for the term of the government to end, the situation will worsen. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are determined to run the country into a ditch whilst we helplessly spectate.