Talk of the Town
By M J Akbar
ByWord in India Today
February 18, 2011
There is one commodity that is inflation-proof even in India's most expensive city, Delhi. Talk is cheap in the capital, available at every cafe and inside every drawing room. But excess of supply should not beguile us into the belief that it is useless. Talk is the barometer of the next political season. Seasons change, at least twice a year. This winter has been cold for the Government; and there was talk that summer might become a bit too warm.
A prime minister does not invite media over for a chat because his principal secretary has told him that he has nothing scheduled that morning. He must have a specific message to convey, particularly when the show is being televised. Dr Manmohan Singh summoned television heads-one or two noticeably burdened by the weight of national responsibility-to ask questions because he wanted one answer to be heard. This primary message was, in essence, simple: he was still in charge; he was still interested in his job; and he was not going anywhere till the next general election in 2014. In his opening remarks he laughed off, or perhaps shrugged off (there is sometimes little to choose between the two with Dr Singh), the suggestion that he was a "lame-duck" prime minister.
But who made this suggestion that the prime minister felt bound to refute? In his first five years, when he was technically more vulnerable, Dr Singh was pretty much the swan on the lake, rather than a hobbled duck. Within 18 months of a re-election which should have energised him with new resolve, Dr Singh was forced to tell the country: "I have to complete this term". Did corrosion begin when in an earlier, similarly publicised press conference, Dr Singh diffidently offered to make way for Rahul Gandhi if asked to do so by his party. A prime minister becomes lame the moment he suggests that he might not be able to walk all the way to the next election. He is instantly a creature of the past, and power splits between him and the representative of the future.
In the last 12 months, Dr Singh has seemed, inexplicably, a prisoner of eddies rather than master of the tide. A viral and vicious undercurrent of corruption has complemented the high storm of inflation. He has been patently helpless about both, unable to act against venality when it was discovered by media under his nose, and making excuses about rising prices rather than finding a solution.
There is no third option in power: either you control events, or events control you. The first threat to a weak prime minister is not the Opposition but the ring of colleagues who circle and wait, wait and circle, timing their moment for the kill. A rump of fairly senior, and therefore ambitious, Congress leaders, including those who are considered, or consider themselves, close to the heir apparent Rahul Gandhi began to orchestrate loud whispers that the prime minister would not survive summer. The discretion implicit in anonymity soon begins to melt as the temperature of ambition begins to rise. As senior a minister as P. Chidambaram recently told an American newspaper that the Manmohan Singh Government was suffering from an ethical and governance deficit. The newspaper obligingly headlined its story "India Ruling Party Ponders Leadership" and told its readers that Chidambaram was "waiting in the wings".
On February 16, Dr Manmohan Singh told Chidambaram to stop waiting. Rahul Gandhi has always been wise enough never to push his claim, but his loyalists surely got the hint: no change before 2014.
There was clarity in the prime minister's message to the Congress; but such clarity began to haze when he spoke to India. The machinations of Delhi are of peripheral interest to a citizen livid at corruption and enraged at inflation. It was inevitable that at least a few of the media persons would question the prime minister's complacency on corruption. It was easy to fudge through a question on 2G since follow-ups were not permitted under house rules. But those who created such rules forgot that the country was tired of fudge. When one guest inevitably pushed for a follow-up, an imperious courtier instructed him not to insult the majesty of the prime minister's position. Such sycophancy by a minion does a disservice to a prime minister whose temperament is averse to confrontation.
Indians are not supine by nature; but they do not waste their strength by putting it on constant display. Every general election is a tribute to their collective muscle. Governments which take Indians for granted, or confuse Delhi with India, are inviting a volcano to erupt. When Delhi talks there is fissure and turbulence. When India talks there will be an explosion.