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Virender Kapoor | August 02, 2004
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is finding out the hard way that it is lonely -- very lonely -- at the top.
The professional economist-turned-reluctant politician is clueless about political management. To make matters worse, his senior ministers, yet to reconcile themselves to a relative novice being nominated prime minister by Congress boss Sonia Gandhi, give him little or no assistance.
Singh also lacks the benefit of able, street-smart aides. The late P N Haksar was the pointman in Indira Gandhi's PMO. Behind the scenes, he fought her battles for her on several fronts. Likewise, Brajesh Mishra was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Chanakya who protected his boss while doing his and his foster family's bidding.
Singh, however, has staffed his PMO with aides who, like him, are all at sea about the inner workings of politics. Besides, given his natural proclivity to immerse himself in files and policy matters, the prime minister's man management has been rather poor.
Dr Singh, hardly what you would call a traditional politician, generally makes himself unavailable to sycophantic partymen who, while carrying tales against one another, nonetheless perform an important function insofar as they provide information useful in dealing with men and matters, especially when pooled with intelligence inputs.
Small wonder then that there are murmurs of protest beginning to be heard in UPA circles against Dr Singh.
Congressmen and their allies feel that the PM mishandled the Shibu Soren affair. If the coal minister had to be given the boot, they argue, it ought to have been done the moment it was revealed that a non-bailable warrant had been issued against him. Sacking him after the Opposition had stalled Parliament on the issue for a week was simply bad politics. It conceded a moral victory to the Opposition and encouraged it to try and tighten the screws on the remaining 'tainted' lot in government.
Surprisingly, the prime minister was denied good legal advice to defuse the Soren affair. The sting could have been taken out of the Opposition attack by the simple expedient of getting Soren to approach the Delhi high court for what is called rahgir zamaanat, or transit bail, on furnishing an assurance and/or sureties that on the scheduled day he would present himself in the court of the Jharkhand magistrate who had proclaimed him an offender.
But the PM did not have the benefit of this simple piece of advice. Whether or not Law Minister Hans Raj Bhardwaj knew about rahgir zamaanat, there are widely respected lawyers associated with the ruling party who could have bailed the government out if only Dr Singh or his backroom managers had consulted them.
For the Congress, Sonia rules
It goes without saying that the entire Congress party sees Dr Singh as an interloper, a usurper occupying the prime ministerial gaddi. If you don't believe us, here is a small but revealing piece of evidence.
In the last days of Parliament's budget session before it broke for the mid-session recess, the Opposition was up in arms in both Houses over the Soren affair. At one stage, when it appeared that the Rajya Sabha might get on with its scheduled business, the Opposition's stormtroopers raised slogans 'Soren, Manmohan hai, hai!' only to be greeted with quiet smirks by Congress members.
Getting no response from the Treasury benches, someone in the opposition soon suggested a small change in the slogan. And they began to chant, 'Soren, Sonia hai, hai!'
Sure enough, all the Congress members, including ministers, were on their feet, some of them advancing menacingly towards the Opposition slogan-shouters who were crowding the well of the House.
The ensuing pandemonium was a signal for the presiding officer to adjourn the House for the nth time over the Soren affair. But the incident was illustrative of a stark reality: Manmohan Singh is merely in office; real power rests with Sonia Gandhi.
The prime minister does not want his photographs to adorn the walls of senior government officials. He has even issued a directive to this effect.
But that has put the babus in a quandary. They do not know what to do with the photographs of Dr Singh's predecessor. Atal Bihari Vajpayee still looks down benignly upon visitors in many a government office because of the lack of a clear-cut directive about where to deposit the photographs.
Tens of thousands of rupees are routinely spent on acquiring large framed photographs each time a new prime minister takes office, but in the absence of a policy to account for them when the worthy demits office, these are simply taken off and thrown away in some dusty attic.
One senior bureaucrat had an interesting suggestion: why not collect all the photographs of the previous PM and gift them to him or his party instead of letting them rot in garbage heaps?
Is someone listening?
Note a long journey
Babus are extremely conscious of protocol. We all know that. But that the disease has infected even the lower ranks of Indian clerkdom comes as a surprise.
Take this instance. The other day, a senior secretary, who has his office in Krishi Bhavan, phoned his counterpart in one of the several ministries housed in the adjoining Shastri Bhavan asking for a detailed note on an issue of current importance.
Immediately, the latter asked one of his deputy secretaries to prepare the required note and have it sent to the secretary in Krishi Bhavan.
The deputy secretary did the needful and put the note in a sealed cover marked to the PA of the secretary concerned. (Going by the drill laid down in such matters, he could not have marked it directly to the secretary, you see.)
Anyway, a week later the secretary in Krishi Bhavan had still not received the note. So, he again phoned his colleague in Shastri Bhavan.
Within minutes, the latter was back on the line, informing the big babu in Krishi Bhavan that the note had been duly dispatched the very day he had asked for it, but his support staff had refused to accept it!
The reason? The envelope in which the note was sent was addressed to PA, Secretary so-and-so. But the PA was by now in the senior pay scale and designated Senior PA! Ergo, he refused to accept the note.
Needless to say, the note was recovered and sent again, this time duly marked to the Sr PA, Secretary, Ministry of X, Krishi Bhavan.
All this drama when Shastri Bhavan and Krishi Bhavan share a boundary wall.
Heard in the Central Hall of Parliament: Prime Minister Singh is being silly not to have his photographs put up in ministerial offices and discontinuing the practice of the entire Council of Ministers lining up to bid him farewell and to receive him on his return from foreign visits.
How else to drive home the point to the likes of Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, et al who the boss is!
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh