Sunday, May 06, 2007

Time to have a baby

Byline by M J Akbar: Time to have a baby

A remarkable coincidence, and two surprising decisions from asymmetrical orbits coalesced to put two honest men into the highest offices of India. Both were patriotic, professional, prudent, educated and unambiguously clean. Abdul Kalam became President of India in the summer of 2002 and Manmohan Singh was sworn in as Prime Minister in the summer of 2004. Both had high profile careers, one in defence weaponry and the other in finance, but neither was a public figure, or had a mass profile. Both are household names today. What do Indians think of them now?

President Kalam’s popularity ratings, one hears, are around 80%. For the life of me I cannot imagine what the remaining 20% have against him. It couldn’t be his hair, could it?
He has done everything right as President.

He has protected the national interest whenever called upon to do so, subtly, calmly, with neither rhetoric nor exploitative sentiment. He has remained above partisan interests, whether in the coarse game of Assembly manipulation, or while gently deflecting the government towards a more reasonable approach in the Indo-US nuclear deal. His patriotism found a wonderful mission: in teaching the young that their finest personal investment was in the future prosperity of their nation.

He was a marginal presence in the nation’s consciousness when he entered Rashtrapati Bhavan. He will be genuinely missed if he leaves it after only five years. Dr Manmohan Singh has taken just three years to become a disappointment. His career is a text book case of good intentions not being good enough. You can’t be pregnant all your life. You also have to have the baby.

The Punjab results were a direct indictment of the Prime Minister’s performance. Dr Singh is the first Prime Minister from an Indian minority community, and yet could not deliver the votes of his fellow Sikhs in sufficient numbers to his party. Muslim faith in him, which had soared three years ago, has sagged visibly after his failure to deliver on the Sachar report. The Prime Minister raised hopes when he publicly promised a massive increase in government spending on development for projects that would benefit minorities. When the Budget was announced a few months later, we discovered that the finance minister had actually cut spending on this head. The Prime Minister did nothing, and has now relapsed into his all-too familiar, and convenient silence.

Once again, lots of pregnancy, but no baby.

His reputation for honesty has also soiled just a bit. No one in his senses believes that he is personally culpable. But a very damaging question is being asked. It is common knowledge that corruption is rife in the present Union Cabinet. Of what use is the Prime Minister’s honesty if he is presiding over a dishonest government, with some ministers collecting money with both hands, and a couple of feet as well? Dr Manmohan Singh’s silence is a form of abetment, and worse. He has compromised in order to preserve his job. It is guilt by association.

In a smart piece of positioning, Dr Singh has preserved a waterproof image despite 16 years in the thick, and occasionally muck, of politics. The contradictions are beginning to chip at the waterproofing.

For starters, you cannot be above politics in a job that demands consummate political skills. Manmohan Singh has all the virtues required of his principal secretary when he needs the qualities of a Prime Minister. He is the first Prime Minister of India who cannot communicate with the voter. He goes to election meetings only because he has a wide-bodied aeroplane at his command, paid for by the voters. No one listens to him. Drummed up crowds fidget or yawn, eager to be released from ennui. Rahul Gandhi has to do the campaigning for him in Uttar Pradesh. Manmohan Singh has power without responsibility for the vote, which leads to disconnect with the voter.

It is now common to suggest that the Congress vehicle is stranded because it has two steering wheels. But consider another possibility. If Dr Singh had the qualities of a political leader, with the flexibility and communication skills needed to move forward, this vehicle might have acquired two engines instead of two steering wheels. Instead, Mrs Sonia Gandhi has had to write letters to the Prime Minister recording her objections to government policy. This means, at least in her mind, that even the single engine of this vehicle is stalling because the government has either gone into neutral gear, or is in reverse. Why else would she place her qualifications on record?

The voter has no sympathy for excuses. He — or, more important, she, for the really decisive voter is now the woman — elected a government that would deliver, not one that would dither.
The allies of the Congress know that they will have to share the costs of failed leadership without having been given the most important portfolios in this government. Their unease is seeping through in their body language, and is getting vehement in their private language.

When the Left and the BJP set aside their almost irreconcilable differences and came together on the floor of the Lok Sabha over the blatant attempt by some American legislators to pressurise Delhi over our relations with Iran, they were sending two messages, one explicit, and the other implicit. The first, obvious, one was to the United States: India is not, and never will be, a client state. The second message was unstated, and might even be denied if you discuss it. But they were also sending a signal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has eroded his credibility by seeming to cut corners in his hurry to push the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is true that Dr Singh was badly served by over-reaching bureaucrats who undersold the problems and oversold the advantages, but advisers don’t hang around to take the blame.

It is always bad news for a Prime Minister when Parliament feels that it has to draw a line he cannot cross on a matter of such vital national interest. A Prime Minister should know such cut-off lines out of a combination of instinct, knowledge, experience and honest advice.

Perhaps the reason why President Kalam smells of roses after five years in Delhi is because his job required him to be above politics. President Kalam was comfortable in this upper zone; he even enjoyed its temperate climate. A Prime Minister has no such luxury. He is a lung of Indian democracy, and democracy is a political nervous system. The Prime Minister is the executive authority of India, the first among equals in his Cabinet; he is not above his Cabinet. He cannot claim the Nobel Prize for Clean Hands while some of his Cabinet colleagues are mopping up the stuff from a swill.

It is possible that Dr Manmohan Singh’s preferred virtues would make him a better President that Prime Minister. President Kalam has laid down a condition for re-election that is virtually impossible for the political system to meet. He wants all three principal blocs, the Congress, BJP and the Left, to support him for a second term. Only a very remote set of compulsions could engineer that.

The President’s Palace is going to be vacant soon. Dr Manmohan Singh might consider changing his address. President Kalam has got us used to a soft-spoken, gentle, decent, likeable, honest, prudent, professional, courteous, educated person at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dr Singh fits the job description down to every comma.

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