When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took on the accusations made by the Anna Hazare campaign and declared that he would give up public life if any of their corruption charges stuck, his remarks created a stir for more than one reason. To start with — and this has been a central failing of his political style — it’s rare to hear the PM speak at all, beyond anodyne speeches to large gatherings who don’t ask questions.
But the hit-back — accompanied as it was by a stated readiness to quit office if necessary — made for an interesting question. Two years short of completing his second term — a tenure shadowed by corruption controversies, scandal, drift, a flagging economy and above all — an ineffectual leadership, was the PM finally gearing up to fight back? Was he reaching into his past and bringing out bits of a personality that had been buried with the demise of UPA 1?
After all, the one big incomprehensible shift from the first term of the UPA to its second has been in the personality of the PM. What happened to the man who went against the socialist instincts of many in his party to virtually demand an endorsement of the Indo-US nuclear deal as a pre-condition for continuing in office? How is it that a politician who was willing to lose the support of the Left and risk a contentious confidence motion in Parliament would in his second term seek shelter behind the compulsions of coalition politics? It’s well chronicled that when his Cabinet was being formed in 2009, the PM was not keen to take in either A Raja or TR Baalu of the DMK.
Despite being empowered by a larger mandate than he had in 2004, why did he compromise? How does one explain Singh being ready to stake his survival on the nuclear deal but not on weeding out the corrupt from his own backyard? Why is it that the PM was more outspoken on economic reforms with an aggressive Left in alliance than he is able to be after their exit?
In truth, what was regarded as the PM’s strongest trait - an indisputable personal decency — has now come to be conflated with his biggest weakness — a timidity of style that prevents robust decision-making. While even today his sharpest critics do not question the PM’s personal integrity, decency is no longer acceptable as a substitute for inaction.
Leaders, in any case, are measured by the strength of their convictions and what they stand for. They are not evaluated or emulated on the basis of what they are not. In other words, the PM not being corrupt — a generally accepted fact — is not a leadership descriptive or something to remember his tenure by.
It is on this crucial point that UPA2 makes a departure from UPA1. In his first innings, the PM was seen as a man who stood for something and was willing to risk everything he had on it. Even if party colleagues privately cribbed that the PM’s intransigence on the nuclear deal had created a political mess that they were left to mop up, we — the people — saw Singh as a Man with an Idea. We may or may not have agreed on the fineprint of the Indo-US deal but we respected him for standing by something he believed in. We forgave him his opaque and uncommunicative political style back then because we saw an otherwise mild-mannered man capable of great firmness.
What has eluded UPA 2 and the PM this time around is a big-ticket idea around which they could have built a distinct political narrative. Attempts were made at a peace dividend with Pakistan being the breakthrough moment of the second term. But the early backlash to the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement — especially within the Congress — made that project a slow-burning exercise rather than create any electrifying moments of fireworks.
The tough line taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security this week on the Siachen glacier is more evidence that a dramatically new relationship with Pakistan will not be the PM’s nuclear deal moment. Logically — and given his own history and interest —Singh should have built his second-term’s legacy around the economy. But the PM seems haplessly stung by both corruption headlines and recalcitrant allies. The repeated deferral of the pension reforms Bill is a case in point.
With the BJP more or less on board, the UPA should have been more ready to stand up to its squabbling allies. But the government is just sitting on its hands. And that is what is antithetical to the very notion of leadership.
Singh’s tumultuous journey in power has also been the story of his changing relationship with India’s middle class. He began as an accidental PM in 2004 — a political appointee who later described himself as a “small man in a big chair” to American TV host, Charlie Rose. By 2009 — the middle-class embraced the idea of an apolitical technocrat who had fought for what he believed in. Suddenly Singh was a middle-class hero, prompting the Congress to behave out of character and declare him their prime ministerial candidate ahead of the elections. In fact, the Opposition’s personal targeting of him in that election boomeranged sharply.
The PM must ask himself what changed so dramatically between 2009 and 2011 that within two years he became the symbol of middle class exasperation. The mistakes and the missteps are obvious for all to see. Now, as his innings slowly draws to a close, will the PM stand up and be counted like he once had? Or will his present remain a pale shadow of his past?
Barkha Dutt is group editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal