Memo to PM: Ego is unflattering
By M J Akbar
Could it possibly be true? Has Manmohan Singh begun to believe what some admirers have started to suggest with incremental passion, that he is India's best-ever Prime Minister? The answer must be no. He is clearly not self-delusional.
Why then did he suggest that his Cabinet was more coherent than that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, noting pointedly that Nehru and Sardar Patel were exchanging letters by the day and Indira Gandhi had to fend off the ‘Young Turks'?
His analogy is ahistorical. Nehru and Patel wrote to each other when they sought to place a well-thought out policy position on record; they were, in a very real sense, creating precedence, administrative culture and an archive of an incubating government. To suggest that this was worse than the petty, ego-heavy squabbling for turf and lucrative territory that is the hallmark of the current coalition, is an extraordinary disservice to two founding fathers whose ideas and sacrifice shaped the birth of a nation. Nehru's letter to Patel in September 1947, warning of Pakistan's plans to seize Kashmir by force, and suggesting that Sheikh Abdullah, then in Maharaja Hari Singh's jail, would be India's strongest ally, is a classic of the genre. This generation was literate, and its natural forte was letters. Nehru used them as an instrument of governance. He wrote regularly to his chief ministers; this did not mean that he was at war with them. Moreover, Patel died on December 15, 1950, and Nehru had many cabinets till he died in 1964.
Indira Gandhi did have to deal with a fringe group that romantically styled itself "Young Turks", after the majors of the Ottoman Empire who sidelined the Caliph-Sultan. But the tallest of the Indian Turks, Chandra Shekhar, never found a place in Indira Gandhi's Cabinet. Two factors create coherence: agreement on policies, and personality of the leader. Policy today, whether right or wrong, is scattershot; decisions tend to be driven either by electoral compulsions or bribery. Nehru and Indira were charismatic. Singh has many virtues, but charisma is not one of them. As a leader, he was too weak to select his own Cabinet; Sonia Gandhi did that.
It is remarkable that Singh never considered comparing his Cabinet with that of Narasimha Rao, in which he served as finance minister. Instead, he positioned himself against and above the supreme icons of the Congress.
The anti-Nehru industry in our politics has a fertile past. The good that men do, as Shakespeare noted, is oft-interred in their bones; mistakes become an indelible national memory. Nehru is chiefly remembered now for referring Kashmir to the UN and a traumatic defeat in the 1962 war. No Congressman is anti-Nehru, but a very strong faction has believed that Nehru was a flawed genius who failed in two critical areas — the economy and foreign policy. India paid a heavy price, in this covert analysis, for Nehru's tilt to the Left, and his heirs did nothing to correct that inheritance.
Rao was the first prime minister of what might be called the non-Nehru faction of Congress. Over the last two decades, Rao and Singh, with occasional help from right-wing parties, have sharply diluted the Nehru-Indira legacy, even as they continue to pay lip service to their names. They sincerely believe that they have served their nation better with economic reforms that took an axe to the state sector, and a strategic partnership with the United States. Indeed, they have been widely applauded by the new-economy elite. Rao even damaged the social consensus that Nehru forged between Hindus and Muslims after the trauma of Partition. Singh, of course, does not contribute to such radical social revisionism. But in the vortex of his unexpressed thought is perhaps a sense that history will place Rao on a pedestal higher than Nehru.
The subconscious is the voice of the silent man. Manmohan Singh is a silent man. Ideas, issues, the temptations of pride and pitfalls of vanity, nestle in that nether region of the mind because better sense suggests that it would be inflammatory and self-defeating to let them rise to the surface. Some thoughts are incompatible with open air. But they tend to curl insidiously through the backdoor of a casual remark, or side-alley of a comparison. The less-than-laudatory reference to Nehru, Patel and Indira Gandhi was a revealing moment. No prime minister has, even through the slippery sinews of a breakfast conversation, placed his Cabinet above Nehru's. There is neither irony nor consequence in the aftermath, since Congress has long shifted out of its mildewed, timber-laden socialist mansion into a new, gleaming prefab condominium.
Maybe Manmohan Singh knows his party better than the party knows him.
(Times of India Column - September 12, 2010)