Just a puppet on a string
One of history’s greatest faults is its asymmetry of acclaim, catapulting some figures into legend status while leaving many worthy others behind as mere footnotes. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to be one such unsung hero of Indian politics whose economic reforms in the early 1990s have shaped fundamental aspects of modern Indian life.
The sudden rise of Singh, basically a government economist, to the top level of Indian politics as the union finance minister in 1991 was like a baptism by fire. Nevertheless, Singh seemed to operate always under the shadow of one or the other of his multiple mentors in 50-plus years of service and political career. As the finance minister, his market-oriented capitalist reform initiative was marred by the country’s biggest-ever stock scam, the very following year.
Internationally, at bilateral and multilateral forums, Manmohan Singh enjoyed great repute as one of the most knowledgeable and pragmatic leaders of our time. Global leaders listen to him with rapt attention. Back home, it has been different. Sadly, Singh is soon set to relinquish his 10-year-old job as India’s most talked about prime minister for shielding corruption, promoting inefficiency and taking economy backward. The home truth is that Singh has never been in control of his department, leave alone the government. He always has had power without authority.
Management and public administration students know that power without authority is of little use. As a result, he has always been an easy target of opposition criticism for all government follies and foibles – from high-level corruption cases to decision goof-ups and governance paralysis – with him rarely reacting strongly and convincingly. This totally eclipsed his other achievements. Singh is seen as the proverbial king: ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’
Singh’s weak response to the latest round of humiliation he suffered from a more authoritative party vice-president, who trashed the ordinance his government sent to the President of India for approval to protect criminally convicted MPs and MLAs is in keeping with his characteristic traits. None of his cabinet colleagues had come to the rescue of the prime minister. Singh’s immediate reaction to the episode was that of a political stoic using words to the effect that he did not control others’ emotions, that he had been through ups and downs and that he had learnt to take all those things in his stride.
Not surprisingly, none, except the prime minister himself, came forward to say that it was the failure of the Congress core group and the union cabinet, which endorsed the ordinance, not once, but twice, to see the logic. Isn’t Rahul Gandhi part of the Congress core group? If he isn’t, it has been wrong to keep him out in the first place. It appears that Singh simply does not have the authority to pull up even some of his most mischievous and corrupt cabinet colleagues.
The real authority rests somewhere else, with the UPA chairperson and, maybe, also with Rahul Gandhi, who share little responsibility of governance deficit, leave alone its failures. Singh is often made to appear as a titular head as decisions are taken elsewhere and he is merely made to own up their responsibility.
One may blame 81-year-old Singh for accepting such a situation. No one can compel him to work as an unhappy prime minister. He could always hang up his boots and resign without fuss. Not really. He needs a clearance even for that. He never seemed to be the master of a situation. On the contrary, he allowed the situation to be his master. A long-time socialist-economist-turned-overnight-capitalist-reformist over, Singh probably never had any ideological hang-ups or adjustment problems.
It seems that once apolitical Singh’s all political masters - from Indira Gandhi in 1972 to Sonia Gandhi, now – wanted him to be around holding posts because he allowed himself to be moulded in clay by his mentors. The country’s 13th prime minister – the first to be re-elected to the position on completion of a full five-year term after Jawaharlal Nehru – had championed the cause of a strict licence-permit regime under the late commerce minister Lalit Narain Misra and later as Reserve Bank governor when Pranab Mukherjee, now President, was the union finance minister through the 1970s and 1980s. Thirteen seems to be a lucky number for him. His birthday – 26th September – is said to be doubly lucky: 13 X 2.
Singh’s biggest break in his career came when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao chose this trusted bureaucrat as his finance minister in 1991. Singh’s sudden elevation to such a top political post did not go down well among several of Rao’s cabinet colleagues, all seasoned politicians. A few of them are serving Singh’s present cabinet as well, not quite seeing eye to eye with him. During Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NDA government, Singh was made to serve as the opposition leader in Rajya Sabha. Singh has never been a Lok Sabha member.
It was again through a twist of fortune that in 2004, when the Congress-led UPA came back to power, its chairperson Sonia Gandhi unexpectedly relinquished the premiership to Manmohan Singh. Ever since, Singh has accepted her leadership and full authority, according his total loyalty to her.
A few months ago, when Singh had expressed his preparedness to serve as a third-time prime minister in a row if Congress returned to power after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, he came under a highly orchestrated criticism within the party. Singh had immediately backtracked by making a public statement that he would not serve a third term as prime minister and would rather work for the party under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.
Many say Singh was never comfortable with Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee’s presence in his cabinet. Mukherjee was believed to have been responsible for shaping Singh’s career at the early stage agreeing to give him a big break as RBI governor. Until he became the prime minister, he had always addressed Mukherjee as ‘Sir.’ Mukherjee’s elevation to the post of the President was seen as a ‘relief’ to Singh until he was prompted by his party and cabinet to push the fateful ordinance to shield convicted politicians for the President’s perusal, which Mukherjee had no intention to approve, in another irony of fate.
Could there have been a disagreement in the union cabinet on the need for such an ordinance? Outsiders are unlikely to know. However, the President had reportedly sought the full minutes of the cabinet meeting. Why did the cabinet go over the ordinance proposal twice? Who forced it? There may be no clear answers to these questions. IPA