Millennium Post

Tale of an accidental prime minister

All political lives, unless they are cut off in mid-stream at a happy juncture, end in failure, said the British Conservative Party leader, Enoch Powell. Manmohan Singh appears to be heading in this dismal direction although a caveat may be entered to ask whether he can be regarded as a true-blue politician at all. Essentially an academic, who reportedly impressed other presidents and prime ministers by speaking without notes on economic affairs, he was, as he admitted, an accidental prime minister.
As is known, he was chosen by Sonia Gandhi because she realised that if she became prime minister herself in 2004, it would give the BJP an opportunity to revive itself after a demoralising defeat by cynically raising the ‘foreign national’ issue over which Sushma Swaraj had threatened to shave her head and live the rest of her life on fruit and nuts. The choice of Manmohan Singh seemed apt if only because of the possibility of the new prime minister continuing where he left off as the finance minister in 1996.
But, Manmohan Singh has failed his supporters, such as Amartya Sen, on two counts. First, he did not push through the economic reforms as vigorously as he was expected to do. And, now, more culpably, he desisted for more than a week from acting against those of his ministerial colleagues who were guilty of financial and procedural improprieties. Hindsight can even suggest that his turning of a blind eye to misdemeanours is not a one-time lapse. When former telecom minister, Andimuthu Raja, was suspected of financial misconduct, the prime minister also failed to act.
His dithering at the time was seen as a manoeuvre to save the government in case any punitive step against Raja aroused the DMK’s wrath and endangered the coalition. But, Manmohan Singh’s latest action, or inaction, can point to an unedifying self-serving motive. It is an unexpected slip-up by someone who has been seen as an honest person. Yet, the belief is that his decision to stand by Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal was not a mere political misjudgment, but a deliberate move to save himself from an adverse fallout from the coal scam for his role when he was the coal minister. Neither the law minister, nor the attorney-general, nor the bureaucrats of the PMO would have entered the confines of the ‘caged parrot’, to quote the Supreme Court’s description of the CBI director, Ranjit Sinha, if they did not want to check – and delete – any critical reference to Manmohan Singh in the investigative report. The details of the changes they made are not yet available, but the fact that the court felt that the law minister had changed the ‘heart’ of the report was damning enough for Ashwani Kumar. But, the prime minister saw nothing wrong.
Arguably, his under-developed political instincts let him down. After all, his lack of a political base is well known. He probably genuinely thought that the law minister had done nothing legally wrong, an assessment seconded by Ashwani Kumar himself when he said after his sacking that his conscience was clear. But, the prime minister failed to understand that in politics, public perception is as important as a formal indictment.
This was where Sonia Gandhi was more astute. She understood that the longer the two ministers clung to their posts, the more the Congress would suffer. In forcing the prime minister’s hand, however, to dismiss the two, the Congress president has signalled the end of the diarchy, which was the order of the day for the party and the government till now. The subsequent clarification that it was a collective decision is evidently an afterthought.
What the dismantling of the dual centres of power – no doubt to Digvijaya Singh’s delight, who has made no secret of his unhappiness with the arrangement – means will take time to unfold. Where the government is concerned, the fact that the ministers and officials will not be torn between dual loyalties will be a gain. At the same time, the diminution of the prime minister’s authority will be an unwelcome first in Indian politics – unless there is a new incumbent, probably Rahul Gandhi. All these years, the prime minister has always been the primus inter pares. Even the gungi gudiya famously proved her detractors in the Congress wrong.
True, there have been prime ministers who were under pressure from extra-constitutional sources of power, notably Atal Behari Vajpayee, who could not appoint Jaswant Singh as the finance minister in 1998 because of objections from the RSS. Or, had to accept in silence the Shiv Sena’s decision to withdraw Suresh Prabhu from the cabinet.
But, Manmohan Singh’s loss of stature could hurt both the Congress and the economy, especially if Sonia Gandhi pushes through her profligate line, which recalls the familiar tax-and-spend socialist doctrine. If the corporate czars shy away from investing in India because of the dilution of Manmohan Singh’s authority and Sonia Gandhi’s known socialistic inclinations, the economy cannot but falter and damage the Congress’s election prospects. IPA
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