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PM Singh's growing weaknesses hurting the government

August 18, 2012 00:04 IST

The manner in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has used his good and clean image to provide a protective umbrella to the corrupt makes him equally culpable, says Sanjay Kapoor.

All these years that Manmohan Singh has been prime minister or even earlier as finance minister, under the late P V Narasimha Rao, he has sported a formidable Teflon layer.

Corruption, scandals of gargantuan proportions that would have felled powerful political leaders have barely tainted his lily white image. He has always managed to take refuge behind his carefully cultivated image of a technocrat (economist) who only formulated policies and who had little to do with its implementation.

He did not want to lose his 'sleep' when the late Bombay Bull, Harshad Mehta, manipulated the stock market to his advantage or A Raja sold the 2G spectrum cheap and that, too to his cronies.

He always managed to draw an arm's length from the dirty business of micro managing policy implementation.

While the trail of letters displaying his opposition to the allocation of 2G spectrum on the basis of first-cum-first serve may have proved his innocence in the telecom scandal, the recent Comptroller and Auditor General report into the allocation of coal blocks resulting in a whopping loss of Rs 1.89 lakh crore nails him. This is the first time that the PM, officiating as the coal minister, actually took a decision -- whatever the circumstances.

As it has happened in many other sectors under his watch, this time, too, the beneficiaries were a clutch of corporate houses whose fortunes have exponentially multiplied due to the policies of his government.

Expectedly, the coal minister and other officers of the government have trashed the CAG report and found flaws in the way the auditors have arrived to the loss. Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal in his soporific defence of his prime minister even had the gall to say that only one block was productive out of the 50 odd that were given away to corporate houses like the Tatas, Jindal and others.

His specious argument was how they could make money when it was not productive. Jaiswal, surely, does not know that corporate houses like to hoard mining contracts till it becomes critical for them to start digging. They would rather import what they need rather than spend money developing their mines. And then there is the case of the benefits accorded to Reliance Power. The list of the beneficiaries of Singh's largesse has been endless since the UPA came to power in 2004, despite swearing by inclusive economic policies.

As prime minister, Manmohan Singh has been on the right side of all those who benefited from his decision -- and they are all powerful people -- there is strong likelihood that in the coming days he may be a beneficiary of serious spin doctoring. Having said that, the coal scandal for the first time in his long career, has been cutting close to his bone.

This time around he cannot finger point an A Raja or even P Chidambaram or "compulsions of coalition politics" to make a virtue out of his carefully cultivated image of a helpless man. While it would not be prudent to make any allegations against his integrity, but the manner in which he has used his good and clean image to provide a protective umbrella to the corrupt makes him equally culpable.

In fact, he does great harm by continuing as the PM, when so much wrong is happening around him. Even if he had clean hands in other scandals, he had a role to play in giving a free run to crony capitalists through his policies. He contributed in dismantling a socialist economy by handing over sectors to crooked businessmen that were earlier the preserve of the state. He did it without putting in place a regulatory system.

While it seems unlikely that Sonia Gandhi would draw courage to remove him at this juncture, what is visible though is his increased irrelevance. When Pranab Mukherjee extricated himself out of North Block to occupy a more classy address in the neighborhood -- Rashtrapati Bhavan -- an impression was created through the media that the great reformer was back in business. It was suggested that he would head the finance ministry and fast track a few reforms to ensure that the rating agencies begin to look at the country kindly and the contagion afflicting Europe does not visit India.

Before he could warm up to the act, he was forced to give finance ministry back to Chidambaram. It was apparent that Congress President Sonia Gandhi had greater respect for Chidambaram's abilities to manage the finance ministry then the PM himself. For record, the time he has been away from finance ministry, the government has had to face flak on one corruption scandal after another. For some bizarre reason, Pranab's stewardship of the ministry exacerbated the misery of the UPA government and brought corruption charges to the doorstep of the Gandhi family itself.

Many believe that this shift earlier, seen as a triumph of the PM, ended up weakening him further. Just before he gave up the ministry of finance, he reportedly told someone who went to buck him up that there was little he could do as no one wanted him to be powerful. If this assertion is really true then the PM has not done too badly for himself. He is the longest serving prime minister of the country after Nehru even if it meant looking the other way when the country was being looted by crony capitalists and their representatives in the government. While his presence helped in 2009 to return to power, Singh has begun to hurt the Congress ticket.

During the run up to the selection of a presidential candidate, there were hundreds of Congress leaders that were beseeching Sonia to make Singh the president and replace him with Pranab. They were claiming that Singh had become a liability and the debacle in Uttar Pradesh was also due to his economic policies. 

Before Mukherjee's name was announced, reports emanating from 10 Janpath suggested that Singh could really be sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The press conference in which Mamata Banerjee dropped the penny when she mentioned Singh's name, sources claim, was prompted by important people associated with Sonia Gandhi's office. It is a different matter that Mamata Banerjee's proposal was summarily trashed the next day.

 While Singh may have heaved a sigh of relief after Mukherjee was turfed out to Rashtrapati Bhavan, contours of a generation change seem to be visible in not so far horizon. This is more so after Rahul Gandhi agreed to shoulder more responsibility in the party and the government. The moot question is would it lead to an early exit of the prime minister, whom the Congress party promised to endure till 2014 or would the status quo prevail? As the revolt by NCP leader Sharad Pawar has shown that it would not be easy for Sonia Gandhi to anoint Rahul in place of the PM without getting the allies on board, who would want their pound of flesh before they allow the door to be shown to the PM. Be that as it may, the Congress president realises that if she does not get her act together then the party would come to grief in 2014.

Opinion polls suggest a precipitous decline in the fortunes of the party in different states. In her home state of Uttar Pradesh, the situation looks so pathetic that the seats of Sonia and her son, too, look quite vulnerable.

Every other state looks bad for the party. What has deepened the anxiety and desperation is the manner in which the anti-corruption movement has delegitimised the UPA government. The recent spike in communalism is also hurting the UPA government's ability to fight communal forces. To counter such difficult challenges, Singh's growing weaknesses could hurt the government and the Congress further. From this standpoint the PM may have outlived his importance for his party and the government.

Sanjay Kapoor