You’ve got to hand it to the Sardar. Seven years and an eternity of being always the bride never the bridesmaid (in Indian weddings we all know who has the fun and who doesn’t), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has held on to his chair not out of some TINA (there is no alternative) factor but by digging his heels in to do his job.
People have been talking about his expiry date from 2004, the year he became the ‘accidental prime minister’. Pundits, including myself, have proclaimed that Singh will go the moment two things fall into place: when the coast gets clear (of corruption), and Rahul Gandhi decides he is ready. But circumstances have aligned with the Sardar’s plan to stick around.
But over the last few weeks, the chatter is back. Congressmen are openly talking about the Ides of November. Astrologically or politically arrived at, this latest notion of Singh’s departure has moved from rumour to gossip and you can gauge the effectiveness — if not credibility — of this theory by the flurry of activity in the office of the PM’s media adviser. With Sonia Gandhi away for a while last month for health reasons and unable to make her seasonal and reassuring statements of ‘Manmohan-ji and no other’, it was left to someone else to do the reassuring: Manmohan Singh.
On his way back from New York earlier this month, the prime minister stated in his underrate-this-voice-at-your-own-peril tone that there was no need for concern as his government would run its full term and he would be there to run it till 2014. Clearly, the statement was not meant as much for the Opposition benches engaged, according to the PM, in their usual parlour tricks to “destabilise the government” as it was for his own party colleagues, many of whose eyes have been on the leadership frisbee and who are waiting to scamper the minute it’s thrown up into the air.
But Singh’s real triumph has been to carve out a niche for himself that some would call a bunker. Think about it. If the swirling fumes of corruption within the UPA weren’t enough to knock out a stronger man, the Punch and Judy show on full display between two senior-most members of the government would have knocked out the plank from under the feet of someone holding authority too gladly, too obviously. If it’s the job of someone ‘more political’ to sort out intra-party wrangles, you won’t expect to blame the ‘non-political, technocrat-PM’ for stepping back and folding his arms, would you?
And therein lies the PM’s power. He may no longer be able to sell the wonders of Teflon to a cynical clientele. But by being lonely at the top, Singh manages to lead a political life of splendid isolation where he doesn’t get bogged down by party intrigues and cloak-and-dagger routines. There have been more than one Congressman who have told me that Singh remains where he is solely because of ‘Madam’s protection’. But the very same Congressmen have added that it would be downright stupid to expect Singh and Sonia Gandhi not to show the utmost mutual respect for each other in public — something that isn’t always the case when it comes to the behaviour of some Congress general secretaries with the PM. By selecting Manmohan Singh as her choice of PM, Sonia Gandhi gave the first push to force a more professional, less familial approach to Congress politics. The ‘Rahul question’ obviously doesn’t help to firm up this plan. But the third non-Nehru-Gandhi Congress prime minister (let’s not get all theological and count Gulzari Lal Nanda now, shall we?), despite his personal loyalty to the Congress chief, has kept much of the original momentum intact. He has shown that he can push his case uphill (the India-US civil nuclear deal), stand aside and let some higher force sort things out (the Pranab Mukherjee-P Chidambaram spat), or set a firm, independent line (in his latest dealings with Anna Hazare), depending on what is required to keep his governmental ship on an even keel. It’s another matter whether many Congressmen have yet registered this ability in the prime minister.
It is this old Congress mentality of being loyal to individuals (and little else) rather than be professional partymen that makes Singh bereft of people whom he can trust. Sure, there are the ‘damage control’ ministers — Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal immediately come to mind — who work in sync with the PM. But even these gentlemen are lieutenants on hire in the mould of bureaucrats working for whoever is anointed king.
The Sardar knows that he has the distinct advantage over everyone else of picking and choosing what should be on his priority list. As of now, as it was in 2004, his priority is to run a government. Surely, that has to be one effective way of doing politics.