Jul 16, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi

Emotion over substance

Yes, I know, I’m getting as tired of this interminable political drama as you are. When the Left withdrew support after four years of threats and abuse, we should all have been sitting up, thrilled to watch this crucial twist in the plot. Instead, we greeted the development with an air of weary inevitability.
Now, we should be worried about the confidence vote, which could be touch and go. But nobody has the energy left to care.
But, for better or for worse, it is still the future of our country that is at stake. So forgive me for any fourth straight political column in a row. My point this week is that, in politics, emotion and image count for as much as substance.
Weak Prime Minister: Was Atal Bihari Vajpayee a strong Prime Minister? Most of us would say he was and we’d probably be right. Along with Brajesh Mishra, he pretty much ran the country from Race Course Road.
But it’s the Vajpayee of the second term that we remember. Few of us now recall the failing, stumbling Prime Minister of the first term, the man who had no control over the price of onions.
What made the difference? After all, Vajpayee’s two single biggest achievements — the Pokhran tests and the Kargil victory — took place during the first term not the second.
I think we judge the strength or weakness of Prime Ministers by their ability to visibly impose their wills on their governments. The Vajpayee of the first term had Jayalalitha to contend with. Each week she would make some outrageous demand. Emissaries would fly to Madras to mollify her. Periodically, she would threaten to withdraw support.
Eventually, Jayalalitha did pull out and the Vajpayee government did fall. But when Vajpayee came back — and no longer needed her MPs — he seemed stronger for it.
As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh is unchallenged in the Cabinet. Such powerful allies as Sharad Pawar and Lalu Yadav have unquestioningly accepted the Prime Minister’s leadership. Contrary to predictions, no parallel power centre has grown up around 10 Janpath. As the current crisis proves, so high is Sonia Gandhi’s regard for Dr Singh that she is willing to sacrifice the government on his say so.
So why does the BJP get away with calling the PM “weak”?
Mainly, it’s because of the Left who have played the Jayalalitha role in this coalition. It wasn’t enough that they could influence the agenda. They needed to keep attacking the government and berating the Prime Minister’s decisions.
On most measures, Singh has been a good Prime Minister. He has presided over the greatest period of prosperity in modern Indian history.
But in politics, appearance is everything. So just as Vajpayee was seen as weak when Jayalalitha undermined his authority, Manmohan Singh’s real strength has been underestimated because of the constant carping of the Left.
For future coalitions, the lesson is clear: it’s not what you do when you are in office that determines your image. It is how the coalition partners behave in public.

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