THE MOST POWERFUL PERSON in the world’s largest democracy is Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Of course. But where does that leave the Prime Minister of India? Manmohan Singh has become the third-longest serving head of the Indian nation-state after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He has addressed the country from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi on Independence Day seven years in a row since 2004, beating Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s record of six years. But he is well behind Nehru (17 years) and Indira Gandhi (16 years).
This Prime Minister is a bit of an unlikely mix: he is more educationally qualified than any of his predecessors; he comes from a humble background; and he is the first Indian prime minister who has never been elected to the Lok Sabha. Despite these diverse qualifications, why is he (apparently) following the Confucian dictum of the three not-so-wise monkeys: “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”? Is it that he is planning to retire with no ineradicable blots on his person, perhaps even consider a move to Rashtrapati Bhavan on 25 July 2012 as the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces? That might be a prudent move; head of state would be a better position for him should, for whatever reason, his full five-year term be truncated: it would certainly be better than becoming, say, the first non-European to head the International Monetary Fund.
It begs the question as to why Manmohan Singh has lately seemed lacklustre, indeed a lame-duck prime minister, despite being the first person after Nehru to serve a second term after completing a full, and not undramatic, first term. Other than the India-United States nuclear agreement during his first term, on which he fiercely staked the future of his government in July 2008, and the current nuclear liability bill, signs of his assertiveness have been rare. Although he often appears atrophied today, he is actually, in personality and inclination, unlike the highly indecisive PV Narasimha Rao, who catapulted him into the political arena by making him finance minister in June 1991.