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Rediff.com  » News » Dr Singh, the prime ministership of India is a political job

Dr Singh, the prime ministership of India is a political job

Last updated on: December 08, 2011 15:09 IST

If the prime minister doesn't plan to step down post the FDI fiasco, he should get down to real governance -- and he can start by having the numerous clowns in his court shut up, says Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

When governments feel the ground shifting under their feet, they resort to diversionary tactics.

Dr Manmohan Singh's government is faced with a groundswell against it -- and not all of it is online. In fact, the vituperation against it online -- which has forced Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal to advocate curbs on it -- is but a reflection of the popular disenchantment with the United Progressive Alliance II.

Which, if you go back to the heady days of May-June 2009, needn't have come to this sorry pass. Why did it, is a question the presiding triumvirate in the establishment can best answer; hacks like me can at best read the portents and offer opinions.

If Verdict 2004 was a surprise one, so was Choice 2004. Dr Singh, pulled out of relative obscurity and promoted to the top job in the country not for any stellar administrative quality but solely for his unflinching loyalty to the Family, had every reason to be beholden for the same.

But Verdict 2009 was different. Was the Congress's and UPA's improved showing in the hustings solely due to the Family's charisma, or did the administration provided and policies pursued by the prime minister -- no doubt with a nod from his political boss -- play a role in the victory?

When you win unexpectedly for the first time, you can be magnanimous in sharing the credit. But a re-election is a different affair; the first could be the result of a negative vote against the existing regime. The second is a clear endorsement and a positive vote. Which is why the Indian voter has been so miserly about voting in the incumbent, because there is so little around him for him to be positive about.

The crisis in the UPA II goes back to its inception, Verdict 2009. And it will end only when this issue -- whose victory was it, the party's or the government's? -- is settled. Tied to this question is the prime ministership of India.

In a democracy there will always be friction between the government and the ruling party and the bosses are expected to paper over the differences, smooth things out.

When Indira Gandhi fashioned her own version of the Congress party from the one that led to India's freedom, she saw the faultline for what it was: A potential earthquake. Her solution was undemocratic, a mirror image of herself as she had become: retain both the prime ministership and party presidency.

If she who grew in the lap of the Founding Fathers that lived and breathed democracy could shrink the tradition to personal hagiography, it hasn't been a difficult transformation for her followers.

Sonia Gandhi's Congress party is caught in this dilemma. It believes that she who led the party to electoral triumph should also be the prime minister. If not, one of her children.

Sensing disquiet over her ascension to the top job, she has chosen to rule by proxy. But the crisis for the Congress party is that neither does her son Rahul, who has been leading a party revival campaign, show any inclination to replace the incumbent prime minister.

In effect, how this percolates down to the rank and file is that there is a disconnect between the party's programmes and the government's, because they are led by two different people.

In effect, how this percolates down to the public is that there is a governance paralysis, manifesting itself in different ways -- from inability to control inflation to drift in economy to indecisiveness on policy matters to unwillingness to curb corruption.

Popular disenchantment from all this could still have been kept under check but for humongous corruption which, if not in truth then at least in public perception has left hardly anyone untouched in the Union Cabinet. Corollary flowing from this: Of what use is an honest prime minister who cannot do anything about his corrupt ministers?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not a political animal -- which is why he does not fight the Lok Sabha elections.

Unfortunately for him, the prime ministership of India is a political job. Political issues need political solutions, not administrative solutions which are Dr Singh's KRA.

And, it seems under UPA II, political solutions are not the Congress party bosses' forte either.

The popular disenchantment against UPA II, which denied it its customary honeymoon period with the voters, could have been better and easily handled, but wasn't.

Drowned in their own smugness about winning a re-election, and beguiled by the disarray in its principal opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party, both the Congress party and the government slept, unaware of the ground shifting under their feet.

It's happened before in this ancient land.

The British didn't take the challenge of a 'half-naked fakir' seriously till it was too late.

The politically astute Indira Gandhi, blinded by maternal love, saw in the Jayaprakash Narayan whirlwind a benign summer breeze.

And Anna Hazare, whose worldview extends to all of a remote village in Maharashtra that not many Indians have even heard of, is poised to do the same to UPA II. Interestingly, none of the three saw/see a political role for themselves.

Faced with a challenge to their existence, one would expect the government and party to act as one. But the disconnect between the two shows no sign of ending.

The government thinks it can deflect the challenge by diversionary tactics. So you have a political hot potato decision like foreign direct investment in retail trade taken when Parliament is in session, a decision which may benefit the government but not the party which stayed put in the barracks during the battle over it.

As the FDI in retail trade showed, the government finds not just the Opposition ranged against it, not just its own party -- but also its allies.

Dr Manmohan Singh is thus besieged on all sides.

His biggest misstep has been on FDI in retail. To break the perception that his government was paralysed, he chose an explosive issue -- just as he did in his first term with the India-United States nuclear deal. As then, he expected to come out guns blazing in Parliament once again.

Unfortunately for him, the script didn't play out that way. If he was a Bollywood buff -- which he isn't -- he would know that sequels work only in films, not in life -- and certainly not in politics.

Retreat 2011 has finally settled the question over Verdict 2011. If there are still doubts lingering in the mind of the prime minister, he should make way for someone more in tune with his party boss.

If not, he should get down to real governance. He can start by having the numerous clowns in his court shut up.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy