In good health, Manmohan Singh was dismissed by his critics as a ‘weak’ Prime Minister. In sickness, he is acknowledged as being indispensable to the ruling UPA. That no single individual has been asked to fill in for the PM as he recovers from a heart surgery may reflect the insecurities of the Congress leadership. But it also does suggest that Singh is now regarded as more than just first among equals. And yet, when in around six weeks time the PM is back on his feet, there is every possibility that the Congress and the UPA will have little time for Manmohan the campaigner in the run-up to general elections 2009.
For some strange reason, the Congress has been reluctant to project the PM as an electoral asset. During the Karnataka elections in May 2008, for example, Singh addressed just one election meeting, that too a closed door one confined to Congress workers in Bangalore. In the November 2008 elections, a few posters did spring up reminding the voter of his important role in piloting the Indo-US nuclear deal. But again, he wasn’t a key campaigner, that role being confined once again to the Rahul-Sonia duo.
Part of the reluctance stems from the PM himself. As a self-confessed “accidental politician”, Singh has been distinctly uncomfortable with the demands of electoral politics. Perhaps, the defeat to Vijay Kumar Malhotra in the one Lok Sabha election still rankles. If middle class South Delhi chose to reject him, then why should he now embrace the challenge of proving himself to be a vote-catching politician?
Someone needs to remind Singh and his party that 2009 is not 1999. He will be entering the Lok Sabha elections as only the second Congressman outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to have completed five years as PM. Even if he has not been formally anointed as the UPA’s prime ministerial choice, he does carry with him the considerable weight of his office. The Congress’s rank and file may remain trapped in dynasty, but the nation is not quite so susceptible. Which is why the much-hyped ‘Rahul era’ must wait its turn.
Moreover, while the soft-spoken Singh may be ill at ease in large public gatherings, elections are more than just about fiery speeches. There is, in fact, reason to believe that the Indian voter, especially in middle class urban areas, is searching for a meritocratic chief executive-like leader who will provide a calming influence, a compass to an uncertain future (witness the rise of Sheila Dikshit). Trapped between a fear of being laid off and the threat of another terror attack, the urban voter is looking for someone who can guarantee a measure of economic and physical security.
This is where Singh as a proven economic reformer has a unique opportunity to reach out to a large and influential constituency, to give them a sense of direction in times of financial worries. This isn’t just about reassuring Indian business, but also about reassuring the aam admi. During the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit three months ago, Singh made an able attempt to chart out a course of action that would sustain an 8 per cent growth rate. Unfortunately, the fine words have not been translated into the clear-headed decisions so desperately needed to energise the economy.
Perhaps Singh hasn’t been given the autonomy a chief executive needs to take the tough decisions. Or maybe he is simply too fatigued to impose his writ on the coalition. If every move — be it insurance FDI, banking reform, pension deregulation, agricultural commodity pricing or public sector divestment — becomes a process of political compromise, then a certain lethargy is bound to filter through. Moreover, how does one explain that critical infrastructure ministries like surface transport, telecom and power are headed by non-performing ministers unless it is simply a case of obliging powerful political interests?
So far, Singh’s seeming lack of a mass base has been held against him. When you are a technocrat politician in a democratic set-up, then there is a certain dependence on the vote-gathering politicians. It also builds a certain diffidence, heightened perhaps in Singh’s case by his genteel, non-combative working style.
And yet, if Singh desires to transform himself into a mass leader, then he could take heart from British PM Gordon Brown. Virtually written off politically a few months ago, Brown is the rising star in a global economic meltdown. At the heart of this turnaround has been Brown’s strategy of bank recapitalisation — having governments provide capital to financial institutions in return for a share in ownership — a bold, imaginative move designed to reinforce public confidence in a faltering economy.
In fact, the parallels between Singh and Brown are uncanny. Both are distinguished former finance ministers. Both inherited economies in a crisis. And both turned them around by making reform their mantra. Both benefited from scholarships and started professional life as academics. Neither Singh nor Brown can be described as natural, charismatic politicians by any stretch of imagination. Both have worked in the shadow of others in public life: Singh was first seen as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s able minister, today he is positioned as Sonia Gandhi’s prime ministerial appointee. For a decade, Brown’s achievements paled under the magnetism of then PM Tony Blair. In a way, both Singh and Brown have almost preferred to be No. 2 men, more comfortable in policy-making positions than being pushed into the cut and thrust of democratic politics. And yet, accidents of history have catapulted them into leading their countries.
It has taken an economic crisis for Britain and the Labour party to truly ‘accept’ the leadership of Brown and see him as an electable politician. The question now is: will the Congress follow suit and have the courage to project the one individual who might just be their trump card this time?
(Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-Chief, IBN Network)