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In the company of scoundrels
October 07, 2005
It's impossible to not have a healthy respect for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, never mind if you don't share his political inclinations, or adore the political company he keeps.
As the man who steered the nation away from certain bankruptcy in 1991, all of us who are today basking in the winds of liberalisation blowing across India owe a permanent debt of gratitude to him.
And when I came into limited interaction with him during his recent visit to Paris and New York City, my regard for the man soared. He conducts himself with dignity, looks you in the eye, does not believe in waffling, and many times I could not help compare his comportment with what I saw, up close, of his predecessor in Colombo in 1998.
Vajpayee too is of similar vintage, and while he exuded an avuncular air about him, his slow and paced-out demeanour often made one wonder if he was up to the task a disillusioned electorate had thrust upon him.
With Manmohan Singh, there is no such thought.
What you see is what you get. He is focused, clear-headed, and obviously a man who takes his own decisions. Perhaps it also helps -- make that helped, actually -- that he is apolitical, which translates into not having a constituency to please.
And, since no one really voted for him, there are no real expectations of him. And when you consider the incumbent in Rashtrapati Bhavan, A P J Abdul Kalam, whose reserve of goodwill among the people puts him in a unique position, one is glad the ship of state is being steered by such men.
For the United Progressive Alliance dispensation that is so dependent on its allies for parliamentary numbers, there can be no better option than Singh as prime minister. It was truly Congress President Sonia Gandhi's masterstroke to nominate him for the coveted post -- it also keeps her out of the rough and tumble of hard-nosed administration, and thus retains the aura she acquired when she so visibly renounced the prime ministership last year.
Manmohan Singh is incorruptible, an able administrator, low on hype, and untouched by scandal. At long last, India has a prime minister it should be truly proud of. Alas, if only one could say the same of the allies he has had to pick up on the way.
Managing a coalition government is all about managing contradictions, we know that very well from the Vajpayee days, and the UPA has more than its fair share of them. A resurgent Left is least of the prime minister's worries -- the spectre of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies returning to power is enough to keep them from rocking the boat beyond tipping point.
But allies like Railway Minister Lalu Prasad are another matter altogether. The pound of flesh he demands for keeping the government stable deplete the goodwill built up by men like Manmohan Singh. And in order to have his way -- in Bihar -- he will stop at nothing, including committing political hara-kiri.
In retrospect, the 1998 Vajpayee government only had to contend with a whimsical Jayalalithaa. But Laloo is in a different league who thought nothing of arm-twisting the government when the Bihar assembly results went against him.
But when a monstrosity like the rape of democracy in Bihar he engineered can be countenanced by the few honourable men in public life we have put our hopes on, it is a time for deep introspection.
Just consider. Governor Buta Singh -- of Congress antecedents and an appointee of the President -- dissolves the newly elected Bihar assembly, a move that is ratified by the Union Cabinet -- headed by the prime minister -- and neither Kalam nor Singh felt it was wrong in principle. Or, if they disagreed with the decision, they let political expediency triumph over principles.
Today, when the Supreme Court has termed that original sin 'mala fide', how can Manmohan Singh or Kalam justify their silence over, or complicity in, the morally wrong decision?
We have read reams about the crores of tax-payer money each election costs. On the eve of an election that has been forced on us, why should you and I bear this expense? Shouldn't the money come from Messrs Lalu Prasad, Buta Singh and others who foisted that decision on us?
But the issues raised by the Supreme Court verdict go further than mere money and expenses. There are politicians and there are politicians, and the Indian voter has enough experience with this class to have very little expectations of them.
Most of this tribe are like Lalu and Buta, he knows. So when they do wrong, he will merely shrug his shoulders as if to say, well, what can you expect from them, and carry on with his life. Perhaps in this lies the secret to why Indians are among the world's happiest people -- we have learnt to go through life with little expectations, and hence fewer disappointments.
But it is when men of honour stumble that it stings. It is when those whose goodness shines through the darkness that envelops Indian politics, fail to halt the march of negative forces that the disappointment sets in. Sure, we have all been let down before by politicians in who we put our trust.
Rajiv Gandhi did it to us, as did his successor V P Singh. Vajpayee will never be able to live down the Gujarat riots.
The difference is that this time we pinned our hopes on the apolitical nature of the President and the prime minister. The political class, we know very well. But Kalam and Singh, we felt as a nation, did not come from that class, although they functioned within the parameters set by it. By personal example, we felt, they will restore the faith we lost in the second oldest profession.
That hope was shaken a bit in March 2005 with Buta Singh's machinations, and has crashed with the Supreme Court's verdict today. Can the timing for that ruling be any better, in the midst of the festival in which our legends tell us Right won over Wrong.
What do you think Kalam and Singh should do? Tell me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.orgSaisuresh Sivaswamy