Prime minister Manmohan Singh is famous for his restraint and his penchant to steer clear of the hurly-burly of politics. So, his fancy footwork in Parliament on Wednesday has created quite a stir in political circles. Going above the heads of the present BJP dispensation, Mr Singh has appealed directly to the “Bhishma pitamah”, as he put it, of Indian politics, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to back the nuclear deal. He also went on to praise the former Prime Minister for the courage he showed in extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan.
The message from Mr Singh is clear. He is telling the BJP in unambiguous terms that his UPA government is only carrying forward the initiatives taken by the NDA on both Pakistan and the nuclear deal. This is the kind of serve that the BJP will find hard put to return. It’s a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ situation for the main opposition party. The appeal to Mr Vajpayee will set the cat among the pigeons within the party at a time when L.K. Advani is striving valiantly to consolidate his position. The underlying suggestion, which can be of little comfort to Mr Advani, is that though Mr Vajpayee has faded into the background, his endorsement is still more valuable than that of anyone else in the BJP. The BJP will be loathe to distance itself from the nuclear deal that it has earlier claimed as its brainchild. It will be equally averse to relinquishing credit for the confidence building measures with Pakistan. It is rare for a political formation to give credit to a rival for such momentous achievements. But that is exactly what Mr Singh has done.
The Prime Minister has shown earlier too that he can be quite canny where it counts. When faced with contentious issues on foreign investment, he has directly addressed West Bengal’s economically savvy Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, bypassing the comrades in AKG Bhavan. Is Mr Singh’s rhetoric enough to push the nuclear deal or the peace process with Pakistan ahead? Perhaps not. But one thing is clear. The man whom Mr Advani has repeatedly called the “weakest Prime Minister” has shown that he can deal a mean hand when he — and perhaps his boss — wants to. That he does so sparingly and reluctantly ensures that he is taken seriously when he does. Something Prakash Karat and Co. should take note of before they engage in their next round of sabre-rattling.