PM's Paradox: In power because he's weak
By M J Akbar
Call it the Manmohan Singh paradox: the strength of his coalition depends largely upon on how weak he is as Prime Minister. The glue holds because he has no power over his partners. One minister is caught with his hands in the telecom till and shrugs off accusation with impunity; a second has no time for Cabinet meetings; a third dismisses a portfolio as people-centric as railways with the throwaway line that it does not represent her true identity. All the Prime Minister can do is smile and carry on. The smile is wearing thin.
A fundamental equation has been quietly reversed. During UPA1, the smaller allies were in power because Congress held them up. Now, the Congress is in power because the Trinamool, DMK and NCP hold it up. Since power is central to Congress schemes for the present and future, all parties have, by mutual consent, eliminated accountability from the algebra of governance to create a semblance of stability. Temperament and tantrum can coexist with venality and incompetence.
The casualty is credibility: it began to creep away but the pace has gradually built up to a crawl. If Dr Singh, whose own reputation remains more positive than that of his government, does not act soon, the pace will quicken to a trot and develop into an irreversible gallop.
Weakness is contagious. It tends to debilitate even those limbs of the body politic that are functioning normally. Congress ministers have always known that they owe their jobs to party president Sonia Gandhi, but they showed the requisite deference to the PM during UPA1 because they knew that Dr Singh's image would be an asset on judgment day when the voter headed for the ballot box. This enormous strength has withered because no one expects Dr Singh to lead the party in the next general elections. Dr Singh admitted as much at his only press conference held, ironically, to project an image of control. Instead, he passed the baton when he said, in his typically honest manner, that he would make way for Rahul Gandhi the moment he was asked to do so. Power is never stagnant. It either consolidates around the leader, or ebbs. Those with longer plans for the future than the Prime Minister are establishing individual markers at the cost of collective cohesion.
The two profound challenges before the government are a turbulent relationship with Pakistan, turned septic by terrorism; and the Naxalite insurrection, spurred by poverty and decades of neglect. There is disarray and dissension within government on both fronts. External affairs minister S M Krishna was clearly, and visibly, disoriented when his colleague Chidambaram, armed with explosive information, lit the fuse under his conciliatory mission to Islamabad. Home secretary G K Pillai had Chidambaram's permission to reveal David Headley's testimony about ISI and Pakistan navy aid to Mumbai terrorists, or he would have lost his job. The Prime Minister chose to rise above the drama.
This is useful if you want to buy time, but not effective if you want to run a government.
Dr Singh is burdened by a further paradox. He is presiding over not one but two coalitions. Congress itself is the second coalition, a storehouse of multiple interests that requires dexterous management even during times of serenity. Personal feuds are only a part of the alternative story; there are genuine and strongly held differences over policy. This is healthy, up to a point; when that point comes, the leader must demand obedience to a government decision. An astute veteran like Digvijay Singh would not have berated Chidambaram as a misguided intellectual snob whose single idea was to shoot his way through the Naxalite problem, without tacit support from his party leader. The Prime Minister has imprisoned himself in the rather dubious proverb, that silence is golden. Silence is too aloof an option for democracy.
A helpless Prime Minister induces a hapless government. Drift, as the term indicates, is never in a hurry. A government can float a long way before someone realizes that it has lost direction. Drift does not threaten a government's survival, but it saps the people's patience.
The third paradox may seem puzzling but is easily comprehensible. It is always much more difficult to run a weak government than a strong one. The latter has a command structure, purpose and enough discipline to induce confidence in the ever-watchful voter. A weak government is great news for a newspaper, and even better fodder for television; but that is where its limited entertainment utility ceases. During his first five years, Dr Singh was an anchor that was powerful enough to keep the ship steady through heavy turbulence in the final 12 months of its journey. Victory in 2009 could have made him master of a cruise liner. If, however, he continues to do nothing, he could become captain of a paper boat.