Where Has Manmohan Singh’s Zest Gone?

The Prime Minister has had enviable innings, but he seems to have lost his sense of purpose and direction

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01 September, 2010

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.

Setting records seems to be in the air these days, even if they mean little. Sonia Gandhi herself is all set to get ‘elected’ for the third time as by far the longest-serving president of the Congress party. Who remembers today that the country’s ‘grand old party’ had a new president almost every year between 1885 and 1978? Indeed, Sonia Gandhi’s biggest worries could include: (a) ensuring the enactment of the women’s reservation bill; (b) the right to food legislation; (c) defusing the agitation for the formation of a new Telangana state; (d) calming passions in the Kashmir valley; and/or (e) curbing Maoism in the central and eastern parts of the country.

But the fact is that they are none of the above. Her biggest concern is not even her mother’s health, even as the old lady undergoes exhaustive repair in the United States. At 63, the Italy-born Sonia Gandhi is said to be worried, as any Indian mother would be, at the fact that her 40-year-old son, Rahul, is showing no signs of settling down with a partner. This is hardly a facetious or funny observation: more and more watchers of, and in, the Congress party today contend that the young Member of Parliament and party general secretary is not primed for a ministerial position, let alone the top job, and that his ‘discovery of India’ is far from finished. Marriage, presumably, is one of the discoveries.

Given the dynastic near-vacuum, rumours are rife that two politicians who see a more influential role for themselves are not exactly on the best of terms: Union Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram and Digvijay Singh, who had declared after the Congress lost the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections under his leadership in 2003 that he would not hold a ministerial position for ten years. Digvijay’s sanyas (renunciation) ends in 2013.

On 14 April this year, Singh, an important general secretary of the All-India Congress Committee and reportedly close to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, wrote in a signed edit-page article in TheEconomic Times: “I have known P. Chidambaram since 1985 when we both were elected to Parliament. He is extremely intelligent, articulate, committed and a sincere politician—but extremely rigid once he makes up his mind. I have been a victim of his intellectual arrogance many times, but we are still good friends. In this case, I have differed with his (counter-Maoist) strategy that does not take into consideration the people living in the affected area who ultimately matter. He is treating it purely as a law and order problem without taking into consideration the issues that affect the tribals…”

Singh asserted that his statement was not directed against the policies of the Congress. Together with his frequent pro-minority pronouncements, he clearly sees himself as leading a slightly left-of-centre faction in the Congress that is pitted against the neo-liberal, market-friendly, harshly anti-Maoist group of which Chidambaram is a part.

The free-for-all in India’s ruling party started over a year ago, almost immediately after the second United Progressive Alliance government romped into power with a bigger majority than it earlier had in the Lok Sabha. Few then would have anticipated how pronounced the drift would turn out to be. The prime minister’s statement in July 2009 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, referring to Balochistan, caused a major controversy. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has been bitterly criticised, not just by his political opponents but also his ‘partners’ in the Congress, for his abject failure to check the runaway rise food prices. Former Congress spokesperson Satyavrat Chaturvedi was sacked after his ‘off-the-record’ abuses against Pawar were captured on tape.

The then Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, was asked to quit after his then-companion-now-wife was linked with the Indian Premier League cricket controversy. Minister of State for Environment & Forests Jairam Ramesh has locked horns with many of his colleagues in government, including Road Transport and Highways Minister Kamal Nath, on the issue of environmental clearances. Ramesh publicly disagreed with two of his seniors—Pawar and Science & Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan—on the issue of introducing genetically modified brinjal into the country, and sarcastically criticised Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal for his efforts to attract foreign universities into the country. But then he had to eat humble pie after he imprudently said—in Beijing, no less—that the Indian Home Ministry’s views on the use of Chinese telecommunications equipment were bordering on paranoia. The list of indiscretions goes on.

Call it the compulsions of coalition politics, but the prime minister has chosen to continue with the services of the highly-networked Minister for Communications Andimuthu Raja, against whom serious charges of corruption have been levelled for allocating scarce second-generation electromagnetic spectrum to telecom companies on a first-come-first-served basis at way below market prices.

The ennui seems to be catching. At a recent media conference in Islamabad, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna hardly reacted when his counterpart in Pakistanm Shah Mehmood Qureshi, equated Home Secretary GK Pillai’s statement on the alleged involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence with those responsible for the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai with the incendiary statements of Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. Then, the prime minister’s conciliatory statement on Kashmir came long after stone-pelting young men and women had disrupted normal life in the state and matters were plummeting towards chaos.

On the economic front, the biggest failure of the government, headed by this eminent economist, is its failure to rein in inflation, especially food prices. On the contrary, the decision by the Cabinet to decontrol petrol prices and hike the prices of diesel, kerosene and cooking gas literally added fuel to inflationary fires, sharply eroding the real incomes of the underprivileged. Even as official spokespersons continue to shed crocodile tears for the proverbial aam admi (ordinary person) while acting against their interests, rumour-mongers are having a field day with their matchboxes. After all, there’s nothing like some gratuitous combustion when the fire brigade is fast comatose.