PMs Don't Dine on Humble Pie
'Manmohan needs to assert his legitimate authority for better governance'
by M J Akbar
In Byword - India Today
July 11, 2011
Manmohan Singh's dilemma is unenviable. He still cannot make up his mind whether he has been elected by the people of India or selected by Sonia Gandhi. 'Both' is a compromise that survives in calm waters but comes apart at the first hint of turbulence.
Sonia Gandhi's problem is a complication of adversity: you can tell a Salvation Army that there is no Army, but you can't suggest that there is no Salvation. The Congress face of salvation is Rahul Gandhi, not Manmohan, which creates a disconnect between government and party. A senior party office-bearer like Digvijaya Singh, therefore, has no qualms about undermining Manmohan at will. Would Digvijaya Singh dare criticise Rahul Gandhi, even after the calamity of the Bihar campaign or the less than salutary results in Tamil Nadu? No. He knows where the source of bread and butter in Congress is. They are the reward of those who constantly demand that Rahul Gandhi replace Manmohan forthwith. The notional prime minister has more authority in Congress than the national prime minister.
A famous tycoon who built an empire out of a dream used to say that it was always possible to lose your way if a car had one driver; but a crash was absolutely certain if it had two. The UPA Government has three drivers, all in the front seat. Manmohan has been handed the steering wheel without being given the keys to the car. If nothing moves, he gets the blame. When he does try and move, driver and navigator often work at cross purposes. Sonia Gandhi's agenda is fixated on populist measures that she believes will make Rahul Gandhi electable; Manmohan is constrained by the limitations of fiscal responsibility. Almost any issue, including the corrosive management, or mismanagement, of corruption, exposes internal contradictions.
Manmohan became prime minister in 2004 but had to share power with a higher authority. After 2007, he has been denied even the privileges of his office. He has been shunted to a waiting room, awaiting the day Rahul Gandhi feels sufficiently stirred to do Indians the favour of becoming their prime minister. But the nation has no pity to waste on a prime minister who does not assert his legitimate authority. Every waiting room has a door. You can always exit through the door that brought you in.
Instead of moving, either to assert control, or to walk out, Manmohan seems frozen. The freeze included his vocal chords, because candour could easily have become incandescent in an environment where his party leaders are allowed to taunt him publicly. Manmohan is a humble man, but effective prime ministers do not dine on humble pie. He has been persuaded at long last to loosen his chords, and we learn that he will take tea with media "regularly", perhaps even once a week. It is always better to chat with the messenger than shoot him, but the point surely is whether there is any resolution for the contradictions that have trapped governance.
How long can a government last without governance? The technical answer is known. A majority in Parliament is often described as "brute" because it can become impervious to popular sentiment. If the Congress believes that it can be both government and Opposition, soaking up the advantages of power while stoking popular sentiment against a scapegoat prime minister, then it will pay a heavy price in the next elections. Duplicity does not work.
Manmohan is a reticent man, whose feelings are rarely visible. But he is unable to hide his discomfort any longer. He has never laughed in public, even in happier times, but he did flash the occasional smile, which sort of burst through his beard, but gently. He almost beamed after victory on the nuclear bill, which set the mood for re-election in 2009. Within two years of his finest moment, he has lost his smile. He should either get it back, or go home.