Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The doctor of drift

Perhaps the question is not asked as often as it should be because the answer is either unexpected or unwelcome. Does a prime minister become stronger or weaker after re-election? The record, across the world of democracy, is heavily weighted in favour of pessimism. What should be a rejuvenation gradually slips into an unsavoury confusion. The reason lies in the leader rather than the system. The agenda of a
first term is driven primarily by the perfectly legitimate ambition to return to office. It therefore encourages a practical programme of governance rooted in the public’s immediate needs. A second term breeds both exhaustion and complacency: After the high of re-election there seems nowhere to go except downhill. A democracy like America has ended the very concept of a third term; in India, no national government has obtained one after Jawaharlal Nehru, and that was half a century ago.

 The concentration of a re-elected PM invariably shifts away from basics; he is content with a holding operation that serves nothing more than the personal comfort of glamour events like world summits, opportunity is frittered away in staged drama, and thoughts turn to largely unattainable temptations like world or regional peace. If Dr. Manmohan Singh seems to be doing all three, it is because he is doing all three. To be fair, he declared as early as in 2009 that he did not belong to the future and the future did not belong to him, when he offered to step aside for Rahul Gandhi at any time of the latter’s
choosing. The next election is Rahul Gandhi’s to win or lose, not his. This might have worked if there was someone furrowing a parallel policy line; but there is no one at the wheel, driving towards a political destination. Sonia Gandhi has lost the way because her nominated driver, her son, dispirited by defeat in Uttar Pradesh, has abandoned the midterm moment when a transition to the next generation could have taken place.

 It does not matter, in 2012, whether Rahul Gandhi spends his time abroad or in India, for even when he is in his country he does not contribute to public life by setting out a framework for the future with which he or the Congress can be identified. The Congress therefore is swimming in a vacuum; it is going nowhere very slowly and sweating profusely in the process. A veteran like Pranab Mukherjee could have held the wheel, as he did so ably between 2004 and 2009. But convinced, justifiably, that there was no hope of Congress making him Dr Singh’s successor, he took a practical  exit ramp to a high office that offers a chance to provide leadership of ideas, if you have any ideas, but is above  political minefields. The most senior Cabinet member after him, Sharad Pawar, leads a single-digit party; with less than 10 MPs he cannot even hope for a miracle that elevates him to the top of the UPA coalition. The power of a prime minister is, in a sense, office-neutral; he is only as powerful as his personal drive and circumstance permit him to be.

 Dr Singh’s second term has been neutered by the simple fact that he has ruled himself out of contention. He has sabotaged his own best asset, his record, with this denial. Neither his Cabinet nor his party is in any mood to listen to him, because he does not promise any reward. Rahul Gandhi, the man who has been given the key to the future, shows no inclination to grasp it. Rahul Gandhi cannot outsource his role, and then claim the applause if a surrogate does indeed play his part with reasonable acumen. In any case, there is not much talent left in the present Congress; the stage is full of hams, not stars. The party therefore clings on to Dr Singh, despite his minimalist attitude to performance. The Government has shifted gear from fast forward to drift to idle.

 The most optimistic projection of Congress fortunes lies not in its own capability, but in the hope that the voter will find the alternative worse. The theory is that all it has to do is serve out its second term and a third will come walking by. At a time when Congress needs some serious thought, this is slippage into wishful thinking. A swamp releases some strange drugs. Their very futility encourages greater hallucination. A flurry of soundbites can create an illusion of activity,  as happened when Pranab Mukherjee resigned and some sections of media projected the notion that 1991 had reappeared.
But 1991 was the beginning of a first term, not the end of a last term. There was the frisson of ideas, and the  energy to implement them. Despite this, Narasimha Rao did not get a second term; and the loneliness of his last days is a parable for his successors.

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