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History will see him as weak PM

History will see him as weak PM
The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh singled out the nuclear deal as the high point of his career at his press conference, but he did not mention any low points as the questioner wanted him to do. However, the reason for the omission perhaps was the difficulty of choosing from a rather long list.

For observers, though, the selection process is easy. At the head of the list is undoubtedly the tearing up of the ordinance in aid of convicted criminals by Rahul Gandhi. True, the dramatic snub with a touch of insolence administered by the Congress vice-president to Manmohan Singh can be said to have encompassed Sonia Gandhi as well, for she was in the so-called core group of the party which approved of the measure.

Even then, the fact that the ordinance had the stamp of the cabinet meant that formally and legally, it was the prime minister who was responsible for drafting the self-serving law which highlighted, yet again, the Congress’s longstanding cynical trait.

While a former media adviser of Manmohan Singh castigated Rahul Gandhi’s ‘insubordination’ and the view of quite a few was that the prime minister should have resigned, the latter chose not to react to the rebuff, confirming the feudal instincts of Congressmen who seem to believe that the higher status of the members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty absolves them of the need to treat the party members as equals.

There is little doubt, however, that the insulting behaviour and the lack of response together constitute the lowest point of Manmohan Singh’s career, which will detract from any possibility of history regarding him more kindly as he believes that it will do. The second lowest point was his failure to act against the former telecom minister Andimuthu Raja, leaving it to the Supreme Court to send him to jail when the prime minister should have sacked him when the spectrum scam surfaced. To be fair, he later explained his inaction by saying that such steps in violation of the coalition dharma would have led to elections every few months.

But, the rationalisation did him no credit. It meant that the political need to keep the party in power overrode any ethical considerations. It was this propensity to wink at indiscretions which made finance minister P Chidambaram refer to the government’s ethical and governance deficits, which proved politically damaging as the party’s and its ally, the DMK’s subsequent defeats in Tamil Nadu showed.

As is known, it was to retain the DMK’s support that the government was reluctant to act against Raja. But, the Tamil Nadu voters did not have any time for this compulsion of the coalition dharma – to use a word to underline the amoral considerations which guided the government in this as well as other matters such as the recent attempt to shield the guilty in the Adarsh housing society scam.

Arguably, as in the case of the ordinance which roused Rahul Gandhi’s ire, Manmohan Singh alone is not to blame for trying to keep the DMK in good humour. Sonia Gandhi, too, must have approved of such expediency, for having spent eight years – 1996 to 2004 – in the wilderness, she apparently did not want a mere matter of rectitude in ministerial conduct to derail the government.

But, again, the responsibility for letting a minister to follow virtually his own rules lay with the prime minister. As it also did in allowing Jayanthi Natarajan to run the environment ministry in accordance with the rules of the licence-permit raj as Manmohan Singh himself admitted. If Raja was given so much leeway to placate the DMK, Jayanthi Natarajan – and Jairam Ramesh before her – were allowed to harass the private sector in keeping with Sonia Gandhi’s socialistic predilections.

It took the party’s drubbing in four states for the Congress to realize that the economic policies of the 1960s and ’70s no longer had popular approval. Hence, Natarajan’s summary removal and the post-haste sanction given to the POSCO’s mining project, which had been held up for eight years.

But, what these developments show is that although the prime minister was aware of the environment ministry’s obstructionism, he lacked the will to act earlier. It is the absence of the courage of conviction which is likely to be noted with disapproval by historians. It is possible that as a former bureaucrat, Manmohan Singh is happier following orders than in formulating and implementing any of his own. His role in carrying out the economic reforms between 1991 and ’96 was more as the finance minister under P V Narasimha Rao than as someone with an abiding commitment to pro-market policies.

Had he been such a votary of liberalisation and globalisation, then he wouldn’t have allowed Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet – the left-leaning National Advisory Council (NAC) – to stall the reforms and let the growth rates plummet. History will see Manmohan Singh, therefore, as someone who was unwilling to stand up to be counted.

IPA

Amulya Ganguli

Amulya Ganguli

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