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Why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a lonely man today

September 21, 2013 21:59 IST

Under constant attack from his political opponents, the public and the media, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to have withdrawn into a shell, says Anita Katyal

A few weeks after he first took over as prime minister in 2004, Manmohan Singh had confessed to a senior Congress leader, “You know it is lonely at the top.”

Having occupied the top post for close to 10 years now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is far more lonesome today than he was in those heady days when the media was enamored by him and the people were bowled over by his humility and integrity.   

Today, the prime minister is a sad and disheartened man.  Under constant attack from his political opponents, the public and the media, he is said to have withdrawn into a shell.

The prime minister’s Cabinet colleagues and officials who meet him these days have come back with the distinct impression that  he is biding his time till the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

They say he is particularly upset at the personal allegations constantly hurled at him as well as the persistent criticism that the United Progressive Alliance government is in the grip of a policy paralysis. Efforts to persuade him to communicate his side of the story have met with little success.

In fact, when a senior Cabinet minister  asked him to reach out to the opposition leaders during the raging controversy over the missing coal-gate files, Singh dismissed the proposal  saying, “What’s the use… they  keep accusing me of corruption.”

Similarly, when a minister recently suggested that he should interact informally with the media on the sidelines of a function, the prime minister was just not receptive to the idea.

“Let it be… they will only get after me,” he is learnt to have replied.

The Congress party’s biggest lament has been that all their top leaders -- PM Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi  --  are not sufficiently communicative.

As a result, people do not get to hear their version of events. At the best of times, the prime minister is media-shy and loathe to give interviews. And now that he is down and out, he appears to have lost all interest in putting up his defence.

Party strategists maintain that with crucial general elections drawing close, it has become imperative for the prime minister to break his silence and speak more often about the UPA government’s achievements.

This, they believe, would change the political discourse which is currently not in their favor.

Rahul Gandhi has attempted to do so in his recent election speeches when he underlined the UPA government’s pro-poor measures like the recently-enacted Food and Land Bills and other rights-based legislations.

The Congress leadership faces a tough task convincing the people about  the UPA government’s achievements.  The party’s credibility has touched an all-time low following the series of corruption scandals which have surfaced over the past two.

At the same time, the country’s economy has been tottering, inflation is high, manufacturing has dipped and the current account deficit is a matter of serious concern. More than the corruption charges, the prime minister is being blamed for the country’s ailing economy.

Hailed as the architect of  India’s economic reforms in the nineties which saw the expansion of the middle classes in the country, people are feeling particularly let down that the economy should plummet under his watch.

On his part, the prime minister is hurting as he is constantly being attacked, especially by the corporate sector, for not taking sufficient steps to speed up the reforms process or push the infrastructure sector which, he believes is far from the reality. His grouse is that the reforms undertaken by the government have been overlooked.

According to UPA officials, the government has undertaken a spate of measures such as the passage of the Pension Bill, new Companies Bill and the land acquisition bill. This is in addition to the reform of fuel subsidies, fast tracking of public sector investment and the constitution of the Tax Administration Commission.

Realising that the infrastructure sector was lagging behind, the UPA government set up a special Cabinet Committee on Investments which has cleared projects worth $30 billion. A special project monitoring group has been set up in the Cabinet secretariat to monitor both public and private big ticket projects.

In addition, officials point to the reforms in the capital markets which include the approval of debt funds, inflation indexed bonds and the setting up of a forward market regulator to improve convergence and coordination.

Similarly, policies have been changed to allow 100 per cent investment in telecom while FDI in multi-brand retail was approved despite stiff resistance from the opposition parties.

The ports and civil aviation sector has got a major boost with the Centre giving clearance to 50 new low cost airports and awarding a record number of new PPP projects for ports.

 “A slew of measures have been taken over the past year but somehow these have not registered with the people,” said a senior UPA official.

Congress leaders bemoan that all these decisions and achievements are not chalked up to the Prime Minister’s credit. Instead, he is constantly derided for doing little and talking even less.

Once described as “Singh is King”, the sheen has worn off PM Singh’s image.  And his decision not to speak up for himself and his government is not helping his case.

Anita Katyal in New Delhi