If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to ever look for a contemporary political soulmate, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee would be a likely choice. Both are individuals of high personal integrity, both men of letters — one an academic, the other a playwright. Neither can be described as a charismatic mass politician, yet both have carved a constituency among the middle-class with their reformist zeal and embracing of the new economic mantra. Both, it would seem, are sensitive human beings, who remain deeply uncomfortable with the stereotypical image of the grubby politician.
Which is why when Buddhababu chooses to describe the PM as someone who has “failed in all aspects”, one is inclined to take notice. An L.K. Advani criticising the PM as the “weakest-ever” is the inevitable rhetoric of a political rival; the West Bengal CM’s attack goes beyond just a high-stakes panchayat elections. It reveals the gradual isolation of a pm in the final year of his tenure.
Has Singh ‘failed’ in all respects? Perhaps, the question itself is being posed unfairly. Being the PM of a country is not like passing a final year examination where marks must be given. Three years ago, Singh may have given himself 6/10, but really there is no objective criteria to determine prime ministerial achievement. An extended term is often a complex mix of success and failure: Jawaharlal Nehru’s 17 years were dotted with remarkable successes (the 1952 general elections being his crowning glory), but also stark failures (the 1962 sino-Indian war the glaring example). Indira Gandhi could bask in the halo of 1971, but must also carry the odour of the emergency just four years later. Rajiv Gandhi kickstarted a technology revolution in the country but also made political blunders that left the country scarred with violent conflict. Narasimha Rao unshackled the economy but presided over the degeneration of political morality. A.B. Vajpayee showed great vision in reaching out to Pakistan but also demonstrated his partisan weakness in dealing with Gujarat 2002.
Singh’s prime ministership too needs a more nuanced assessment. Few will deny that in the last four years, moral fibre has been restored to the office of PM. This is arguably the first prime ministership since Lal Bahadur Shastri four decades ago where there has not been a whiff of a scandal involving the PM or his immediate family: 7 Race course road under the occupancy of Singh is universally acknowledged as a symbol of honesty and austere living in public life. This in itself is no mean achievement in the times we live in, but is clearly not enough.
Unfortunately, while Singh scores highly on the moral quotient, he struggles on the political one. As a policy adviser, or even as a finance minister, one could perhaps afford to make honesty a sole badge of distinction, but a PM needs more than just personal rectitude to be a success. A PM of the country cannot be, as Singh has chosen to describe himself, an ‘accidental politician’. The cut and thrust of politics, especially in a coalition arrangement, necessarily demands a high-level of deft political management and decisive leadership. Compulsive hand-wringing in the face of pressure cannot become the calling card of the PM. A PM must command political authority, he cannot become a forlorn-looking ‘victim’ of politics.
To some extent, the fault lies not just with the genteel, non-combative persona of Singh. The principal failing has been in the nature of the ruling arrangement at the centre. The dualism of political power being vested in 10 Janpath and executive leadership staying with the PM’s office has a built-in danger of undermining the authority of the PM. How can anyone function as an effective CEO if one is left constantly second-guessing what the chairperson desires, or if a malcontent can conveniently go above your head to the ‘Supreme’ leader? Sonia Gandhi may have chosen to give up prime ministership and appoint Singh instead with noble intentions. However, in reality, the creation of parallel centres of power has meant that the elbow room that a PM needs to effectively function has been considerably reduced.
In a coalition government, where regional bosses and party allies see themselves as ‘first among equals’, a diminished PM can be a recipe for indecision and weakness, eventually undermining the cabinet system of governance. This is precisely what has happened to the UPA in recent times. A Karunanidhi can ‘demand’ his choice of portfolios and worse, his choice of people to head them, and the pm can do little. A health minister can be a loose cannon, and no one can rein him in. A T.R. Baalu can openly admit to seeking a ‘favour’ for his family from the PMO and get away with it. The left can exercise veto power on virtually every major policy decision, and there is little that a hapless government can do to limit the damage.
Forget the allies, now even some Congress ministers are acting like independent chieftains. Why, for example, has the PM struggled to get some of his ministers to fall in line on controlling inflation by imposing duties on iron and steel exporters? Why has an Arjun Singh been allowed to get away with pursuing his private agenda on higher education? There are persistent reports that even a few ambitious ministers of state have quietly challenged prime ministerial authority.
‘Legacy’ is an important context in which historians judge pms. Nehru’s legacy lay in establishing the foundations of a modern democracy; Indira built on the idea of strong nationhood; Rao could claim to have ushered in economic liberalisation; Vajpayee will perhaps see Pokhran II as a decisive moment and even V.P. Singh in his one year could claim to have bequeathed reservation politics to future generations.
In his fifth year as PM, Singh must surely wonder how history will judge him. An honest, well-intentioned person may be a character certificate, it cannot be a legacy. Which is why the next few weeks in the Indo-US nuclear treaty negotiations could be critical. The treaty, in a sense, could define his prime ministership. Does he have the political courage to defy the left and press ahead with the treaty? Or will he choose survival over personal conviction?
It is also a defining moment for Mrs Gandhi. After all, when she made Singh the PM, she claimed he was the best man for the job. If she trusted him then, surely she must repose confidence in him now. Why haven’t we heard a ringing endorsement from Mrs Gandhi of the government’s steps to take the nuclear negotiations to their logical conclusion? Why should a hamstrung PM have to rely on the “words of wisdom” of a former president to hope that the opposition will come around? Why can’t his Cabinet colleagues echo their support for the PM at this crucial juncture instead of weighing the pros and cons of a possible collapse of the government in its final year in office?
The time may well have come for Singh to bite the bullet and prove that he is a PM of substance by going ahead with the N-deal in the belief that it is essential for future energy security. As for Buddhababu, maybe the West Bengal CM too needs to set his own Nandigram-tainted house in order before he rushes to criticise the PM. Singh and Buddhadeb have a historic opportunity to prove that decent, middle-class visionaries have a future in politics in this country. They must not squander it.
Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network.