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Dr Singh, lead or leave
Harsh V Pant
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June 30, 2008
Notwithstanding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's [Images] threats to resign, the paralysis at the Centre is absolute. One day, it looks the prime minister is threatening to go eyeball to eyeball with the Left. The next day, the Congress president takes over and tries to mollify the Communists

One day, the government seems to have made up its mind about the nuclear deal but the very next day the bumbling begins anew. It is the tragedy of this government that despite signing the landmark civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact with the US it will be remembered for the lack of spine it showed in standing up to its own convictions.

Just four years back this government began with so much promise. The Congress had won against all odds and Sonia Gandhi [Images] by renouncing the most powerful office in the country had become the most powerful political figure. She had given the prime ministership to one of the most respected public figures of the last twenty years, to someone who had taken some tough decisions at a time when it had seemed nothing could go right for the country.

So it was natural that it was seen as the beginning of a new phase in functioning of the Congress party and it was expected that after being out of power for a long time, Congress will be governing with a renewed sense of purpose, especially with an efficient Dr Singh at the helm.

But none of those rosy assumptions has come to pass. The Congress party soon returned to its geriatric ways. The enthusiasm that the electorate had felt when they had watched a number of young parliamentarians to emerge from the Grand Old Party was soon deflated when once again the young blood was sidelined.

The Cabinet ministers and the party functionaries continued to be the same old tired faces that have given such a tawdry reputation to the party all these years. The political capital that Sonia Gandhi had won so painstakingly got spent fast and furious as the party returned to its grand old ways soon and the government got crippled with the Communists refusing to allow any meaningful governance measure to be undertaken.

Despite this, it was to the prime minister's credit that he decided to go for one of the most far-reaching decisions that any Indian government has ever taken. It's not clear why he did not take his party into confidence as it is clear that there is little enthusiasm for the nuclear pact within the Congress itself.

Probably he thought that with Sonia Gandhi's support the support would inevitably follow. But this shows his political naivete. Without good political handling, no policy goal can ever be achieved in a democracy. What is even more galling is this romanticism about the Communist parties that somehow with logical reasoning they would come around to support the pact.

From the very beginning, if there was anything that was clear it was the fact that the Left parties will never support the deal. They have been nothing if not consistent in their foreign policy, if that's what it can be called. They have never supported India's nuclear programme and to expect that they would support a US-India rapprochement is akin to expecting them to denounce China's anti-Indian policies.

For the government to rely on the Left to carry this deal forward therefore goes against the grain of what the Left has traditionally stood for.

Perhaps, the government was relying on the BJP to ultimately support the deal when it came to the crunch. But again that goes against anything that Indian Opposition parties have traditionally stood for. When Indian political parties sit in the Opposition benches, they are not interested what is generally understood as the national interest. They consider their sole job is to oppose the government even on those issues on which they might hold similar views. But what's an Opposition party if it can't humiliate a government on an important piece of legislation?

'The people of India are for the deal'

For the BJP the deal is also a reminder at their own deficiencies in negotiating a similar deal when they were ready to sign a deal with the US in return for much less. So it continues to assuage its guilt conscience by suggesting that it would negotiate a better deal if it comes to power as if their American interlocutors are waiting with bated breath for a new political dispensation.

And now after delaying a confrontation with the Left for as long as he could, the prime minister wants to finally make a break. There is no time left and he doesn't want to go to the G8 summit claiming that the search for consensus continues. The political operators in the Congress are warning that they should not upset the applecart even now as soaring inflation will not be very conducive to contest elections.

However, a few more months in office are not going to bring down the inflation which in all likelihood will not go down even when the elections are due next year. Meanwhile, the Left has started playing the communal card, something that it does not get tired of blaming the BJP for. It is scaring the potential supporters of the deal that a support for the deal would lead to a loss of Muslim support. This is the principled politics of the Left!

Indian Muslims are far too intelligent for this kind of scaremongering to work but the Left should be careful in playing these tricks for their locus standi of being the great secular force in the nation gets only weakened with such petty politicking.

India today finds itself bereft of tall leaders. Our present political leaders of all stripes stand diminished. Regrettably, there is hardly any choice for the Indians. Today's political class seems incapable of either inspiring or effectively managing the country's myriad problems.

It says something about the dearth of political talent in the country when the best that the Indians are offered are either the derivatives of various dynastic legacies -- the Gandhis, the Scindias, the Singhs, the Pilots -- or are those who play to the worst fears and anxieties of their countrymen -- the Narendra Modis, the Thackerays, the Mulayam Singhs, the Mayawatis.

No wonder, India continues to look to the film industry and its cricket pitches in search of its idols. They may be faux gods but at least they have some talent!

This nation is in dire need of leaders who can not only spell out an idea of India that this moment in history demands but can also effectively manage to bring that vision to fruition. The prime minister, despite his noble intentions, has singularly failed to either manage the country well or to provide a vision for the nation's future. He is a nice man but India needs an effective prime minister. May be it is time for him to stand down.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College London [Images].

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