I was listening to Manmohan Singh deliver one of his better speeches at the HT Summit on Saturday and reflecting on the position that the Prime Minister (PM) now finds himself in. Put simply, he is a good man in a bad place.
When Singh talks, it is impossible not to admire his erudition, his sober, unflashy style or to be struck by the air of decency that surrounds him. This is a man who has bent over backwards to prove his integrity.
And yet, his government is caught up in a corruption scam that refuses to go away. When the DMK’s A Raja was sacked as telecom minister, many people assumed that once the person at the centre of the controversy had been thrown out, the issue would begin to wind down.
Instead, the situation has escalated. A couple of days ago, CNN-IBN’s Meetu Jain uncovered papers that suggested that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had given in to pressure from one of Raja’s predecessors, the DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran, to let the telecom ministry bypass the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on key pricing issues.
Other channels featured MPs (such as Sitaram Yechury and Rajeev Chandrashekhar) who had written to the PM, warning him about the state of the telecom ministry. Plus, there is the now-famous case of Subramanian Swamy’s effort to seek permission to prosecute Raja. The PMO did not respond promptly to this request and the Supreme Court is now considering the reasons why.
While none of this comes remotely close to suggesting that the PM acted improperly, the media have taken the line that the telecom scandal has robbed him of some of his moral authority. It is not enough to be honest, they say, if you do nothing about the crooks in your government.
The Congress’ response is that it has actually done much more to act against those accused of corruption or even, mere impropriety, than previous governments. Suresh Kalmadi was stripped of his party post. Ashok Chavan was made to resign. And in the past, such high-profile ministers as Natwar Singh and Shashi Tharoor have been sacrificed on the altar of propriety. The contrast, as the new telecom minister, Kapil Sibal, pointed out is with the BJP which was also beset by telecom scams but was reluctant to sack anyone.
This may well be true. But somehow, the public are not buying it.
So, here’s my question: how did one of the most decent politicians in India find himself in this mess? I have two theories. The first has to do with the nature of coalition politics. It is widely accepted that the senior ministers in this government are honest — finance, home, external affairs, defence etc.
It cannot be a coincidence that they are all Congress ministers. And while nobody will deny that the Congress has its share of crooks in government, the government’s real problem has been the allies. Until now — when Raja was sacked — the party has treated the allies as being sacrosanct. They are rarely touched in reshuffles and though Congressmen know that many of them are corrupt, they are content to shrug and say, “What can we do? These are the compulsions of coalition politics.”
What this controversy tells us is that the rules have changed. The public will no longer treat the allies and their corruption as being different from the performance of the PM. If a coalition partner is corrupt, it reflects on the leadership of the government and on Singh personally.
As this realisation sinks in, the Congress will have to reassess its attitude to its allies. It cannot continue holding them to different standards of morality or make compromises to allow the coalition to continue. This may have been good politics once upon a time. But now, it is simply unacceptable.
My second theory for Singh’s current problems can be summed up in two words: public fatigue.
Singh is now the longest-serving PM of India since Indira Gandhi. By the end of his term, he will have left everyone except for Jawaharlal Nehru and Mrs Gandhi far behind. We don’t always notice this because the PM’s own style is non-obtrusive and he is content to keep his office low-profile.
When you have been PM for as long as Singh, people begin to weary a little of your leadership. The very qualities that were seen as assets are now seen as handicaps.
When he was sworn in, we admired the PM’s non-interfering nature. He would restore the policy of Cabinet government and concentrate on the big picture, we said. We liked the fact that he was soft-spoken and never seemed to lose his temper. We were pleased by the idea of having a scholar and a thinker as our leader.
But as time has gone on, we have forgotten our original responses. Instead, we want him to be all the things that he is not. Why isn’t he more assertive? Why doesn’t he talk more? Why doesn’t he play a greater role in the running of various ministries? Why is he so decent when it comes to dealing with errant Cabinet colleagues? Why isn’t he more dynamic? Shouldn’t he be more energetic?
For the most part, these remain niggling doubts and minor reservations. But when something like the telecom scam breaks, they come to the fore. It is all the PM’s fault, we say. He should have got involved in the workings of the telecom ministry much earlier. Raja should have been sacked months ago. This is a government that does nothing! And so on.
There is no real solution to the public fatigue problem. It affects every long-staying politician everywhere in the world (think of George Bush or Tony Blair in their second terms). Some leaders try and cope with it by making changes to their styles of functioning. These can serve as temporary fixes but no PM can change his basic personality.
Fortunately, for Singh, I don’t think his position is half as bad as Tony Blair’s during his last days. The corruption issue can be fixed if the Congress gets its act together when it comes to the allies. In his last term, Singh took the line that there was no point continuing in office if the nuclear deal did not go through. My sense is that he is on the verge of coming to a similar conclusion about corruption and the coalition. The indications are that Sonia Gandhi is as fed up of the dishonesty and intransigence of many of the allies.
If the PM and the Congress move quickly and recalibrate their attitude to the allies and bow to the public mood by reinforcing a zero-tolerance attitude to corruption, this crisis will pass. But if the government does not change its attitude then such crises will recur with increasing frequency.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)