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Has the PM become a liability for the Congress?

By Anita Katyal
May 09, 2013 21:50 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s popularity has plummeted as he faces public ire for poor governance and a never-ending string of corruption cases involving the UPA government, says Anita Katyal

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal stock taking a nosedive, there is no end to speculation both within and outside the Congress that he may be on his way out. But that is not to be.

Despite talk about differences between the prime minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi on a host of issues, the latest being the removal of Union ministers Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Kumar Bansal,  the party chief  continues to repose full faith in Manmohan Singh.

The prime minister is set to travel to Guwahati on May 15 to file his nomination papers for his fifth Rajya Sabha term. His current term ends on June 14.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi met the PM on Wednesday night to finalise the date for the filing of his nomination papers. The PM was earlier slated to go to Guwahati on May 14, but since President Pranab Mukherjee will be in Assam on the same day, it was decided that the PM would go the following day. 

Although there was never a doubt that the PM would get a fifth term, it had not stopped the disillusioned elements in the Congress from hoping that his current term would be his last one in the Rajya Sabha. This essentially reflects how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s personal image has taken a severe beating in the UPA government’s second term.

The PM’s popularity was at its peak in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

Manmohan Singh had endeared himself to the urban middle class and the corporate sector loved him for giving the necessary push to economic reforms, his clean image and his unwavering stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Congress leaders acknowledge that PM Manmohan Singh’s successful first term and his projection as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate were key factors in pushing the party’s Lok Sabha tally to 206 seats.

When the scams and corruption scandals first started surfacing, the Congress was quick to shrug them off on the plea that their ministers and leaders were not involved in these controversies. The party was quick to put the blame on UPA allies, pointing out that coalition compulsions prevented the PM from keeping them in check.

For instance, when the 2G spectrum scam hit the headlines, the public and the Supreme Court was willing to gloss over the prime minister’s role in this multi-crore corruption scandal. DMK leader and then telecommunications minister A Raja was held solely responsible for the spectrum scam.

Skirting the issue, the apex court made a distinction between the Prime Minister’s Office and the PM himself, stating that those who were expected to give proper advice to the PM had failed to do so.

It’s a different story today. The PM’s popularity ratings have plummeted as he faces public ire for the poor handling of the country’s economy, spiralling inflation, poor governance and the never-ending string of corruption cases involving the UPA government.

The prime minister first came under personal attack when the CAG report on the coal block allocations noted that the exchequer had suffered huge loses because of the government’s decision not to go in for open bidding. The Opposition was quick to train its guns at the PM since these “irregularities” pertained to the period when he was heading the coal ministry. The opposition had been waiting for a chance to destroy the PM’s clean image and it immediately grabbed the opportunity.

On Wednesday, even the Supreme came close to sending out a stern  message to the PM when it observed that by allowing the PMO officials to have access to the CBI’s status report on the coal blocks scam and the changes made by the law ministry had allowed "the heart of the report" to be changed.

The PM is also in the dock for unnecessarily protecting Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal even though they have been embroiled in serious cases. There are murmurs in the government and the Congress party that Ashwani Kumar has not been asked to put in his papers because if he is asked to go for amending the CBI report on coal-gate, the PM would be next in the line of fire. This is also the reason why the Joint Parliamentary Committee probing the 2G spectrum did not accept A Raja’s offer to depose before the panel.  Raja was all set to tell the JPC that he had kept the PM informed about all decisions pertaining to 2G spectrum allocation.

Whatever the fate of the two ministers, there is no denying that the Manmohan Singh has come under a lot of flak. The media, which had deified him earlier, has also started targeting him, describing him as an ‘underachiever’ and ‘Dr Dolittle’.  

Congress cadres are doubtful about how the party will fare in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls if Manmohan Singh remains at the helm. “It is an acknowledged fact that the PM is no longer an asset for the party like he was in the 2009 elections,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

Photograph: B Mathur/Reuters

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Anita Katyal in New Delhi
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