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Low on high command

The UPA is in the first year of its second term. But there's a sense of drift. It's time not just for the PM to assert himself, but for the Congress chief too. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2010 21:55 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai

A few years ago, I asked Saurav Ganguly how he felt on losing the Indian captaincy. Ganguly, candid as ever, replied, "I miss being in the team, but frankly, am relieved at not being captain. An Indian cricket captain is under constant pressure, and after four to five years at the top the pressure gets to you!" If being captain of the Indian cricket side is tough, then being prime minister of the country is a shade tougher. This independence day, as Manmohan Singh created a slice of history by delivering his seventh speech from the Red Fort ramparts — the most since Indira Gandhi — there was a suggestion that maybe what is true of an Indian cricket captain also applies to the leader of the country's political ship: has Singh's prime ministership run out of steam is the big question being asked.

Next month, the PM will turn 78. In itself, age should not be a constraint. Last year, after his second major heart surgery, Singh appeared recharged during a general election campaign where his persona was made a key factor. When he was repeatedly attacked for being a 'weak' PM, there was even an uncharacteristic flash of anger, as he questioned the credentials of those targeting him. Indeed, having successfully piloted the Indo-US nuclear deal, and then presiding over the best Congress performance in over two decades, there was reason to believe that the genial sardar had come into his own.

A year later, the doubts have resurfaced, even the goodwill which the PM's personal integrity so readily attracts appears to be evaporating. The charge of being indecisive is now finding a silent echo even among his many admirers. The examples offered are many. The Kashmir crisis has festered since June, yet it took over two months before the PM publicly intervened. Even then, his response was tepid: a promise of jobs and the appointment of another committee indicative of a bankruptcy of ideas. On the Naxal challenge, the government's stand ranges from uncertain to chaotic. When a Mamata Banerjee speaks out of turn in virtual support of the Maoists, the PM seems reluctant to rein her in. When a Jairam Ramesh collides with a Praful Patel over the much-needed second airport in Mumbai, the PM appears unwilling to exercise veto power.

When an A. Raja finds himself discredited over serious allegations of corruption, the PM doesn't appear in any hurry to seek an explanation or effect a ministerial reshuffle. When rotting foodgrains symbolise the inefficiency of Krishi Bhavan, there seems little urgency in enforcing accountability. And even the attempt to get the crumbling Commonwealth Games house in order appears to lack credibility: an 'empowered' committee of secretaries is a classic 'Yes Minister' recipe for more confusion. The solution to every policy issue — be it a Bhopal judgement or a caste census — is to appoint a group of ministers (GoM), usually headed by the political all-rounder Pranab Mukherjee (there are 47 GoMs, of which the Mukherjee heads 27). The result is a perceptible sense of drift in just the first year of a new government.

Ironically, Singh in his second term should have been much more in command than in his first innings when he was still coming to terms with his dramatic ascent. In 2004, Singh was saddled with a government that was dependent on the left and a motley group of small parties. In 2009, the mandate was for a more stable coalition, with the UPA no longer in need of weekly life support from any of its coalition partners. In term one, the PM could be held hostage by the left over critical economic policy choices, this time he should have no such fear. And yet, timidity in governance has become the hallmark of UPA-II, almost as if the PM's bureaucratic past has returned to haunt his political present.

The bureaucrat tends to be risk-averse, the politician tends to take chances. Two years ago, when confronted with a belligerent left, Singh put his government on line over the passage of the nuclear deal. In those difficult months, it appeared that the PM had discovered a political spine and the power of the PMO. Unfortunately, deal done and election won, Singh seems to have retreated into a shell.

The reluctance to take the initiative may also stem from conflicting signals emerging from the other power centre, 10 Janpath. In his first term, Singh's prime ministership was boosted by Sonia Gandhi's reassuring presence by his side. This time, the Congress president has been less protective of the PM, be it after the Sharm el-Sheikh tangle, the Naxal conflict or fuel pricing. For marginalised Congressmen, be it Mani Shankar Aiyar or Digvijay Singh, this is then open season to keep sniping at the government in the belief that dissent is tolerable. The re-emergence of the National Advisory Council as an alternative policy group has only further undermined the cabinet's authority.

Which is why it is time not just for the PM to assert himself, but for Gandhi too. Her silence on critical issues is only giving extra ammunition to those who feel that the UPA leadership is either tired or complacent, or perhaps both. Six years ago, it was Gandhi who handpicked Singh as the chosen one. Now, she needs to help revive his flagging prime ministership before its too late.

Post-script: The capital's gossip bazaar is working overtime, claiming that Singh has already been sounded out for a possible move to Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2012 and a smooth transition of power to Rahul Gandhi. If only politics was as simple as cocktail party chatter!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.