Sunday, January 16, 2005

Why am I in Power?

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J. Akbar : Why Am I in Power?

The question that Dr Singh will have to answer this year, and the sooner the better, is simple, basic and vital. Why is he in power? He may have come to power by accident but he cannot remain in power by accident. Power can be sustained only by a defined purpose. What is that purpose?


Last year Dr Manmohan Singh was fortunate. This year will determine whether he will be successful. All successful men require a degree of good fortune. But all fortunate men are not necessarily successful. Fortune opens at least one door through which you can depart from the predictable trajectory of life and enter the realm of the memorable. Success comes when you can sustain the memorable.

Dr Manmohan Singh has used his first two hundred days in office to sustain his personal reputation. This is good news. He has not changed from the person we discovered when P.V. Narasimha Rao made him finance minister. His central virtue remains integrity. The country has responded warmly and his stock has been rising at a very Manmohan pace: steadily. He must of course be aware of the inherent dangers. The biggest is that of high expectations, for integrity is much more than financial honesty. It extends to intellectual and moral integrity. The disappointment therefore will be far higher if he is ever seen to succumb to the traditional political demands of obsequiousness or compromise beyond a common sense-level.

The common sense-level can be identified by an application of common sense. No one expects him to risk his government by measuring Lalu Yadav or Shibu Soren by the yardsticks of the Prophet Moses ("Thou shalt not steal" etc). And yet, it will hurt his image, and do so soon, if he gives the impression of being impotent. He may not be the moral arbiter of past sins, but there must be no sin under his watch.

The question that Dr Singh will have to answer this year, and the sooner the better, is simple, basic and vital. Why is he in power? He may have come to power by accident but he cannot remain in power by accident. Power can be sustained only by a defined purpose. What is that purpose?

It cannot be yesterday’s purpose. He cannot become Prime Minister in order to become better finance minister. The story of economic reforms is not over. Much remains to be done, and doubtless will be done in either micro or macro leaps, depending on opportunity, ability and the vagaries of coalition politics. But the fact is that economic reform is yesterday’s story, begun by Rao and given a bipartisan dimension by Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Dr Manmohan Singh cannot be in power as a holding operation while the Congress rearranges its leadership options. That, apart from being the waste of opportunity, would reduce him to being in office rather than being in power. The difference is obvious. Gulzarilal Nanda, Charan Singh, I.K. Gujral and Deve Gowda were in office. Each was removed, in a matter of days or months, before he could come to power. Others found their own route maps to legitimacy. Rajiv Gandhi inherited the office through a national tragedy. He acquired credibility through a general election. A quirk of politics and the inflexibility of Morarji Desai made Indira Gandhi Prime Minister. Her road to credibility was perhaps the most difficult of all. She took time to define her purpose, and when she did so had to fight exceptional battles within her own party, within Parliament and then at the hustings. Vajpayee was merely in office until a paradoxical defeat on the floor of the Lok Sabha opened the door of victory in the general elections of 1999. You can also begin by being in power and end up being in office, as Morarji Desai did between 1977 and 1979. This is the potential nightmare that Dr Singh must beware of.

If Dr Singh wants to lead India, rather than merely govern the country for whatever period God has placed in his destiny, then he must address the theme question: "Why am I Prime Minister?" He needs to formulate an answer with depth and sufficient length to stretch for five years. When he has formulated it, he needs to let us know what it is.

For in that answer will lie the hinge of his credibility. Power is a curious animal. It comes to life only when it has been injected with credibility. Power is not the ability to give orders, whether you are sergeant major or Prime Minister. Any fool can give orders, and lots of fools do. Power is the ability to get those orders obeyed. That is why power is best sustained by wisdom and dissipates so easily with arrogance. Dr Manmohan Singh can never be accused of arrogance. His modesty is one of his fundamental assets. But he might want to check out the humility levels of some of those who speak in his name.

Neither is power static. If it does not sweep forward like a tide, it ebbs. The pace in either direction is slow and often invisible when you are surrounded by the protective screens of office, making the obvious invisible. You can take it as a law: when there is no progress, there is definitely regress. The forward momentum of power is propelled by the search of a new horizon. Which is the horizon towards which Dr Singh wants to take his country? What are the new realities that will be his legacy, his memorial, his raison d’ĂȘtre for having been Prime Minister of India?

Dr Manmohan Singh is a good man, but being good is not good enough. Nor is it necessary to be a missionary in order to have a mission. As I noted, the laws of Moses can be left to the domain of Moses. And yet every Prime Minister needs to define the Promised Land towards which he is leading his people.

In an interesting departure from image, Dr Singh opened the new year with a significant political ploy. He was in Bengal, the fortress of his principal ally, the Marxists. Bengal is the true power base of the Left, not Kerala, and the stakes in any election in Bengal cannot be higher for the Marxists. Using a remarkable blend, as delicate as the finest Darjeeling tea, in a tone not quite casual and not quite definitive, the Prime Minister invited Mamata Banerjee, the Left’s greatest adversary, not only back into the Congress but also back into the Union Cabinet. The second part of the perfectly nuanced offer was even more significant than the first, and gave the lie to those who believe that our economics-driven Prime Minister does not understand politics or political manoeuvre. It was a signal from a lighthouse that did a 360 degree turn, throwing beams in every direction.

Mamata Banerjee does not have MPs, so Dr Singh was not adding to his Parliamentary score. His sharpest signal was aimed twelve months into the future, at the Bengal elections of early 2006. It was an assertion that the Congress was not ready to live in the margins of Bengal in order to appease the Marxists. The party in Bengal, in other words, would not be hostage to the coalition in Delhi. This is a legitimate horizon. The danger of coalition politics as it has emerged with the formation of the present government is that it threatens to reduce the Congress to a tattered and sporadic force in Indian politics, picking up seats where it can, rather than a cogent national party. There are serious implications for India’s polity if the Congress remains a marginal player, unable to consolidate or grow, for if the next general elections are held, as due, in 2009, the party could be further weakened by the lash of anti-incumbency. That would mean that of the two national political formations, the Congress and the BJP, neither is expanding and both are conceding space to regional forces. Today the two coalitions have a centre around which they can circulate. If that centre weakens beyond a point, the nature of coalition politics will change. When power fractures, will the polity hold? I don’t know the answer, and maybe our constitutional structure has the strength to heal such concerns, but do not rule out the possibility of new temptations — perhaps in the office of the President of India, for starters. The seeds of the future are always sown in a complacent present.

As Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh must use power to chart a road map for his party. But that is only part of his mission. His substantive contribution has to be to create an agenda for every Indian. It cannot be a multipolar agenda that stinks of unachievability and is therefore dismissed as familiar political hypocrisy. Dr Singh is still believed, because he is believed to be honest. He must not dilute that confidence by promising all things to all people, which of course ends up by meaning nothing to anyone.

What could be his core mission? I could of course name a few of the great unfinished tasks of the Indian nation state: the abolition of poverty and illiteracy, or the creation of peace with Pakistan, and there would be nothing new in them for we still have not had a Prime Minister who promised to increase poverty or to incite war with Pakistan (do not rule the second out, though, for hysteria has many lovers). Such noble intentions as the creation of national wealth have been ill-served by lip service. If one expected the same from Dr Manmohan Singh, I would not have wasted time asking the core question. It is not where we want to go that is the question, but how we will reach there, and how soon. The time has come for an answer. The answer can only come from the Prime Minister of India. As far as we are concerned: well, we also serve who only stand and wait.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would be rather interested in knowing that why you are an editor. Let me know the purpose.