Those sections of the commentariat who urged the government to get into a confrontation with its allies over the nuclear deal had predicted that the popularity of the deal would lift the government’s own standing. India would be so thrilled, we were told, by the sight of a regime that fought bravely for the right to be allowed to buy uranium that the Prime Minister would be hailed as a hero and the government’s own image would be secured.
Well, sorry guys, but it sure as hell hasn’t worked out that way.
Instead, as the image of Manmohan Singh wiggling his shoulders and thrusting V-signs into the cameras fades, the public mood is more sombre than euphoric. Of course we are all pleased that the nuclear deal — which is good for India — will go through but nobody is dancing in the streets. But many who had a high opinion of the government’s integrity are beginning to re-assess their positions.
The messages sent out by the Prime Minister’s aides during the vote — “this marks the emergence of Manmohan, the Politician” and “he is the cunning strategist who brought Amar Singh on board” — have backfired. “The emergence of Manmohan, the Politician” has been taken to mean that this former moral giant is now just like everybody else, especially his deal-making colleagues. And the decision to enlist the Samajwadi Party has led to fears that the government has merely exchanged one troublesome ally for another. Certainly, the demands keep coming. For instance, the SP has changed its mind on the price of support: despite its earlier denials, it now wants Cabinet berths. And even Amar Singh wants it to be known that while Manmohan is a nice enough fellow, these days he deals directly with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi who treat him with warmth, who always take his calls, and who do not require him to go through a mere family retainer.
Because the vote — and the shenanigans that surrounded it — was followed so quickly by the blasts in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, nobody has had the time to focus fully on how much the government’s image has been damaged by the events of the last fortnight or, even on what the Prime Minister should do now if he wants to end his term as a high note — which, presumably, he does.
Here are some suggestions of my own.
Here are some suggestions of my own.
Though Manmohan Singh has been an excellent Prime Minister on most measures of performance, his image has failed to match up to the reality because of the perception that he was pushed around by the Left. A Prime Minister must not just perform. He must be seen to be strong. Manmohan Singh’s problem was that he was content to allow himself to be caricatured as a prisoner of the allies.
Now that he’s rid of the Left, he needs to make sure that he does not fall into this trap again. Some compromises are now inevitable — he has to pay off the political debts incurred during the confidence vote — but once these are out of the way, he must hold firm.
If he lets other allies — including his new friends in the SP — get away with making excessive demands, then he comes off as weak again. The next time there’s an attack on one of his ministers or a corporate-backed demand for policy changes, he must publicly defend his own people and be seen to be forcefully repelling all interference.
Nobody is going to withdraw support now — not till the election. So Manmohan Singh has nothing to lose by being firm and assertive.
Throughout his career, Manmohan Singh has had an enviable reputation for personal integrity. Even though he was inducted into politics by one of the biggest crooks ever to become Prime Minister of India, he insulated his own image from Narasimha Rao’s. None of the sleaze that characterised Rao’s regime ever touched Singh — not the suitcase-at-RCR-scandal set off by Harshad Mehta or the blatant buying of MPs for Rao’s own confidence motion, the subject of several criminal prosecutions later.
The allegations about the buying and selling of MPs during the last trust vote have the potential to seriously dent Manmohan Singh’s image. It’s no good saying that the PM did nothing; it was Congress managers who paid off the MPs. This motion was presented as his battle and the victory as his triumph. He is ultimately responsible for what transpired.
Does he want to spend the rest of his life being seen as the moral heir of his old mentor Narasimha Rao?
Most of the allegations are based on rumour and innuendo and can safely be ignored. But there’s one that he cannot avoid. Asked outside Parliament about the charge made by three BJP MPs that they were paid off, Manmohan Singh asked: “Where is the proof?”
Well, there is proof. We can’t be sure of the quality of the CNN-IBN sting tapes. And they may well be, as the channel claims, entirely inconclusive.
But as long as the tapes exist and as long as the BJP alleges a cover-up in their suppression, the stain will refuse to leave Manmohan Singh’s reputation.
If he intends to continue to be seen as a man of integrity, then he must tell the Speaker that his government has no objection to the telecast or wider dissemination of the tapes.
Even at a practical level, this makes sense. BJP insiders admit that there is no evidence of the involvement of Ahmed Patel or any Congressman on the recordings. Yet, as long as the tapes are suppressed, rumours about Patel’s involvement will fly around. The only way to end the innuendo once and for all is for the tapes to be made public.
The longer he waits, the worse it looks for Manmohan Singh.
We know what Manmohan Singh’s legacy as Finance Minister was. While the IMF took Narasimha Rao hostage and held a gun to his head, Manmohan Singh was allowed the freedom to transform the Indian economy. The prosperity of 21st century India is a direct consequence of Dr Singh’s actions as Finance Minister in the early 1990s.
But what is his legacy as Prime Minister? I would argue that it is the sustained economic growth that we have witnessed during his term. No Prime Minister has made Indians as rich as he has. And no Prime Minister has also been so committed to those at the margins of our society to the extent that he introduced measures (such as the loan write-off) that collided with conventional economic thinking.
However, Manmohan doesn’t seem to think that’s enough. His grouse against the Left is that he was not allowed to do the things he really wanted to do. He’s got one of them through — the nuclear deal — at incredible cost. Now, he must use his remaining months at Race Course Road to push through the reforms that he says India so desperately needs.
Some of them require parliamentary approval and there are fears that even if the Congress majority in the Lok Sabha holds, the reform Bills will not pass the Rajya Sabha. To get the reforms through, he needs the BJP.
So, here’s my final suggestion. The Prime Minister should invite LK Advani, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha along with S Gurumurthy, or whoever else Advani is listening to these days, to Race Course Road.
He should tell them that time is running out for India. Our window of opportunity is closing. Now is the time to rise above politics and to reform the economy before it is too late.
The BJP portrays itself as the party of reform. It says it is pro-liberalisation. Surely, it must want to vote for these Bills?
The meeting with the BJP will have one of two consequences. The BJP could agree. In that case, India gains, the reforms become politically neutral and Manmohan is seen as a statesman who reached out beyond party lines. Or, the BJP could refuse. In which case, what little credibility the party has with educated Indians will collapse. We all know that it has taken a hypocritical stand on the nuclear deal. If it exhibits similar hypocrisy over reforms, who will take the BJP seriously again?
Manmohan Singh needs to do this quickly. He must do it openly. Unlike the private consultations over the nuclear deal, this offer must be public so that, this time, if Advani backs out, the people of India will know at once. It is exactly the sort of bold gesture the Prime Minister now needs to make. The time for V-signs and petulant speeches abusing Advani is over.It’s time for positive action.
6 months ago