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India No, Prime Minister

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
No, Prime Minister

A scam-ridden decade in office has tarred the clean image of Manmohan Singh. But is the PM a victim of circumstance or has he mastered the art of staying in power without accountability? Shoma Chaudhury tracks his legacy.

by Shoma Chaudhury - 11-05-2013,Tehelka Weekly, Issue 19 Volume 10

Is Manmohan Singh a victim of circumstance or has he mastered the art of staying in power without accountability?

For most of the nine years so far in his miracle position, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been uniquely protected by an adjectival fortress. Even as his government has steadily imploded into darker and darker scams, even as the economy has slid into seemingly terminal decline, even as, shamefully, the 15th Lok Sabha has clocked the least number of hours in its history, even as the country feels completely adrift and leaderless, Singh personally has remained curiously firewalled behind the idea of him being a decent, upright and erudite man.

That fortress of goodwill has been fraying for a while. Events this week prove, finally, it is just not tenable any longer. It is time, in fact, for a complete reassessment of who Singh is and what his tenure as PM has meant for India.

Over the past nine years, Singh has often cited “coalition pressures” for stands not taken, decisions not made, scams not averted. This time, he has no such alibi.

The CBI’s investigation into the coal scam was being monitored by the Supreme Court. Both as PM — which makes him the head of the council of ministers and responsible for all his colleagues’ actions — and as coal minister for three of the five years under scrutiny, Singh is himself a subject of the inquiry.

The Supreme Court had explicitly asked the investigating agency not to share its report with the political executive. But not only did the law minister and officials from the coal ministry and his own office vet the report, they were complicit with three of the highest officers of the land — the Attorney General, Additional Solicitor General and CBI director — committing perjury in the Supreme Court. This is a scandal of unprecedented proportion. The court has made scathing statements about “erosion of trust” and how the entire “process of investigation has been shaken”. But how does the PM react? He asserts there is no reason for the law minister to resign and defers taking any decisions till the Court should force his hand.

This absence of propriety — this chronic timidity in taking a stand — has been a key signature of Singh’s tenure as PM. Leader of Opposition, Arun Jaitley, who has long been a strident critic of Singh, has often exhorted him both within and outside Parliament to behave like the head of the country and not merely a civil servant or party marionette. “The trouble with the prime minister,” he says, “is that he is completely ideology-less. He does not act like a leader; he does what a cabinet secretary should do.”

There was a time when only critics held this dim view of the PM. Increasingly now, even his well-wishers are voicing similar misgivings. Sanjaya Baru, who was Singh’s media adviser, says, “For the first five years of his tenure, he was seen as a puppet PM, a nominee of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi. In 2009, had he stood for Lok Sabha elections, it would have been his mandate. Those 60 extra seats they got were earned on his goodwill and performance. But he could not bring himself to claim that mandate.”

The second thing Baru faults him for is to not have had the spine to assert himself when corruption charges began to emerge in UPA 2. “He should have gone to the party and said, I refuse to carry the can, but he did not do that. Being the prime minister is no ordinary position. You are the symbol of the entire country. There is no position more powerful than that. Even the president cannot make a speech in Parliament unless it is cleared by the prime minister, but he never assumed that authority.”

There is a sort of reductive irony about a good man in a big chair who insists on behaving small. Baru encapsulates that with a joke doing the rounds in Delhi’s power circles. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM, people used to say the real prime minister was his national security adviser and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. Now that Manmohan Singh is the PM, they joke that he is the principal secretary. Baru says he shared this crack with the PM; Singh had the magnanimity to laugh. But clearly, he did not draw on its lessons.

This talk of Singh’s proclivity to behave like a bureaucrat — an employee dependent on some higher political authority — rather than as the country’s foremost leader is no ordinary criticism. In fact, its damaging impacts cannot be emphasised enough. It has resulted in an unparalleled power vacuum; a loss of morale; stagnant decision-making; a log-jammed Parliament; zero public messaging; a crippling absence of vision. And a country lurching from crisis to crisis.




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