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A matter of prime importance

india Updated: Apr 30, 2011 22:16 IST
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‘The Prime Minister put himself out there and answered all questions because as an honest man he has nothing to hide.’

That’s a quote from Manish Tewari, Congress spokesman, after Manmohan Singh’s press conference in February this year. As a statement of fact, few would quibble with it, for everyone knows that the PM is a spotlessly clean man. But everything else is wrong with the indefatigable Tewari’s sentence. But let’s not shoot the messenger; he is only repeating what the big man himself said.

Reports of the press conference held at 7 Race Course Road say that Singh’s statements could be summed up in the two sentences whose variations dominated proceedings. Number one: “You have to put up with a lot if you are running a coalition.” Number two: “I am not such a culprit as I am made out

to be” (ie “I am a completely honest man”). To make sure everyone got the message, the Congress PR mandarins sent SMSes to the editors who had attended the meeting. “Please support the efforts of an honest man,” the SMSes said.

If a textbook were to be written about leadership, the PM/Congress strategy would figure in the chapter ‘How Not to Deal with a Crisis.’ To start with, it’s defensive in the extreme. Secondly, it’s reactive. A real leader is expected to lead. He is expected to take the initiative, to point the way to his flock and firmly take the first steps in the right direction. If he only reacts to situations, and that too defensively, his ability to lead will soon he questioned.

This strategy, which hasn’t changed at all in the intervening months, also fails to address the central point in the crises facing the UPA government and the Congress: No one has questioned the honesty of the PM; everyone, on the other hand, has questioned his ability to deal with the corruption rampant in the government. Blaming coalition dharma for the scams makes it worse: it further reinforces public perceptions that the leadership can’t lead.

Harping on the prime minister’s personal integrity is bizarre in another way because, by implication, it suggests that previous holders of the office have been lacking in this quality. Would that be true of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, all Congress prime ministers? Or, for that matter, non-Congress PMs like VP Singh and Inder Gujral? Even Deve Gowda who has wreaked so much havoc in his home state of Karnataka, was on his best behaviour in New Delhi. His example perhaps shows that the prime minister’s office occupies too huge a space on the national stage and is far too much in the spotlight for anyone to use it for personal gain.

How would a real leader combat a crisis? He would identify the root cause and tackle it head-on. Singh did nothing about the 2G spectrum problem before it became a scam, and once it had gone out of control, didn’t take the lead in pursuing the crooks. The government even allowed Anna Hazare to make a people’s movement out of the Lokpal bill, which the Congress could have made into its own initiative.

Oh well, that’s so much water under the bridge. So what does the government now do to stop itself from drowning? When the going gets tough, you expect any politician worth his salt to stride confidently on to the national stage and deliver stirring speeches outlining his/her new strategy to combat public concerns. Unfortunately — and probably uniquely anywhere in the world — we have in Singh and Sonia Gandhi the world’s two most uninspiring speakers, both of them still unable to speak without reading from prepared texts. You can’t hope to inspire an audience if that audience is fast asleep.

Given this handicap, the Congress will have to rely on other methods. Through history, leaders have resorted to a gambit borrowed from the military. When cornered and with no possible avenue of escape, try a diversionary tactic. Margaret Thatcher launched the Falklands war, Indira Gandhi the Bangladesh war, George Bush the Iraq war… Obviously no sane person will advocate a diversionary war to save the Congress’ skin, but the crux of the idea is to take an initiative that will engage the nation, and divert its attention.

What are our national obsessions, apart from the making of money (which in fact, leads to scams in the first place)? Movies and sports, of course. One can’t see the government stepping into Bollywood, at least not without looking ridiculous, so that leaves only one avenue: sports. The forced exit of Suresh Kalmadi has also given the government just the handle it needed in this area at the right time. The new sports and youth affairs minister is so little known that he was referred to as Ajay Maken and Lalit Maken in adjoining stories in a national newspaper. Nevertheless, Maken should be empowered with a massive budget and matching staff to launch a ‘Discover the Champions’ project in sports, which suit our temperament and physique. There are a number of private initiatives of this kind, but they lack adequate funding: here’s a chance to marry public funding with private enterprise to launch a country-wide talent hunt, which will capture the national imagination. Simultaneously, the new minister’s efforts to rejuvenate sports bodies should continue with vigour. Entrenched fiefdoms must be destroyed and sportsmen installed at the top.

This isn’t cynical exploitation: the process of cleansing public life has already begun with the Supreme Court cracking the whip and RTI activists and the media exposing wrongdoing. Singh may have missed this particular bus, but he can still do something significant and long-lasting: announce an independent CBI, insulated from government interference. Simultaneously, the Discover the Champions campaign may actually do just that, find some real world beaters. That will have the effect of making us feel good about ourselves. About time too.

( Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based author and columnist )

The views expressed by the author are personal