When Mohamed ElBaradei stood up to speak at the HT Leadership Summit in 2007, he began by praising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Known then as the former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rather than a presidential challenger, ElBaradei declared that Singh was the “model of what a political leader should be”.
As leadership change gets underway in Egypt, it is unlikely that ElBaradei will be looking to Singh for inspiration.
From being the ‘leader other leaders love’ (Newsweek, August 2010) to becoming a prime minister derided for a ‘lack of political instinct’ (Time, January 2011), it’s been a quite a fall.
Nobody questions Singh’s honesty, decency and intellect. Yet, for the first time there is a gathering view that the longest-serving prime minister of India, after Indira Gandhi, is simply not up to his job. Singh has been silent on the hot issues of the day, whether it’s the telecom scam or the issue of black money stashed in foreign banks. The Supreme Court has been asking what many in the country (including the BJP) are: why didn’t the PM act earlier on Raja? What is the inhibition in revealing names of those who have illegal accounts?
Nothing Singh says or does seem to be able to shake off this growing vocal discontent. Perhaps this is because he says and does very little. On the tiranga issue, for instance, it was the BJP’s voice that was loudest. For ordinary people, the Indian flag is a symbol of patriotism. So, when the BJP declares that it will hoist the flag at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, most Indians find it hard to understand why this is a provocation. By speaking to senior journalist Harinder Baweja at Headlines Today, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah ensured that his voice didn’t go unheard.
Savvy politicians, Jairam Ramesh, for instance, aren’t shy of being heard, whether on Niyamgiri or on Adarsh. P Chidambaram isn’t wary, whether it’s setting the record straight over the selection of ‘tainted’ chief vigilance officer PJ Thomas or the rise of new terror groups. Kapil Sibal hasn’t hesitated in communicating his vision on telecom policy or education. Whether you agree or disagree, the key here is communication.
For all her other faults, Indira Gandhi made the art of communication seem effortless: slipping into local tribal gear, speaking emotionally to connect with an emotional people. A large part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity comes from his oratory skills. Sushma Swaraj makes effective use of Twitter to get her point across. Nitish Kumar was warm and affable as he shared a meal with journalists at the Indian Women’s Press Corps.
The absence of grand political gestures from Manmohan Singh, who has never won a direct election, ties in with his description of himself as an ‘accidental politician’. But the issue goes beyond natural reticence. It involves the entirely political office of the prime minister. It involves the role of institutions in a democratic set-up. Singh’s silence didn’t matter so much during the life of UPA 1 (though he was remarkably vocal on the India-US nuclear deal). This time around, there is a national crisis of confidence where faith, even in the army and judiciary, has been shaken. As head of state, Singh should have been providing leadership. “When there is a crisis, we expect the prime minister to be the voice of the nation,” says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
In the age of television and social media, communication is the key to political success. Problem is that Dr Manmohan Singh has never seen himself as a politician first. He is an economist and an intellectual who gives the impression that he is above the hurly burly of political life. But the prime minister’s office demands political expedience. At the very least, it asks for elected representatives to talk to the people who have voted for them. If Manmohan Singh wants his legacy to remain intact, if he wants to maintain the sanctity of his office, he might have to recast himself.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.