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Look, it?s Teflonman!

For those who believe that in the age of 24-hour news channels, television can make or break politicians, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh provides the perfect rejoinder.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 01:35 IST
Beyond the byte | Rajdeep Sardesai
Beyond the byte | Rajdeep Sardesai

For those who believe that in the age of 24-hour news channels, television can make or break politicians, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh provides the perfect rejoinder. A product of the All India Radio era, for Singh the camera seems an entirely avoidable intrusion into his public life, something he would prefer to stay miles away from. Which is why Singh’s major press conference in the capital — only the second since he became prime minister 20 months ago — was an exercise devoid of any of the drama or histrionics that television journalism feeds off. For much of 90 rather long minutes, the professorial prime minister in his favoured blue turban mouthed a series of platitudes with limited news value, barring the occasional swipe at those who have dismissed him as a ‘weak’ leader.

And yet, India’s least telly-savvy prime minister (okay, maybe Deve Gowda and Gujral were worse) is only seeing his approval ratings and stature climb higher with time. Is he, as has been suggested, the ultimate ‘Teflon’ prime minister? The Oxford dictionary defines ‘Teflon’ as a trademark for someone, especially a politician, who has an undamaged reputation, in spite of scandal or misjudgment. On the face of it, Singh fits the bill. For despite all the upheavals in the Congress-led UPA government, nothing seems to stick to the chief executive of the nation. Charge-sheeted ministers can slip in and out of the cabinet, and the prime minister can shrug it off as an inevitable consequence of coalition politics.

The Left can threaten to derail the reforms programme, and Singh can soft-pedal it as a reflection of the robustness of Indian democracy. The imposition of President’s Rule in Bihar can be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but the prime minister can point to the 3-2 split verdict as evidence that he did no wrong. The Quattrocchi controversy can suggest interference in investigations at the highest level, but Singh can easily pass the buck on to the CBI. The Economist can opine that he is in office, but not in power, but that doesn’t seem to diminish him either.

So why does Singh get away with what a Buta Singh cannot or, for that matter, no senior politician in the country would? Shouldn’t Singh, as head of the cabinet that went ahead with recommending President’s Rule in Bihar, be as culpable as the state governor? Quite simply, Singh gets away because he is at the moment free of the baggage of the past. A Buta Singh must still labour under the reputation of being charge-sheeted in the JMM bribery case and being the home minister when the original shilanyas was performed in Ayodhya. When you are a politician who is identified with political skulduggery, then a midnight decision in the Patna Raj Bhavan will become an obvious source of concern.

Similarly, an L.K. Advani cannot undergo an image transformation in Pakistan without the ghosts of Babri masjid returning to haunt him. Nor can an Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for that matter, emphasise his statesman-like qualities without being asked about his track record as a swayamsevak.

Singh, on the other hand, does not have the blood of the post-Ayodhya rioting on his kurta, and his formative years were spent not in the shakha, but in academia. The teacher-bureaucrat who involuntarily strayed into politics is an image which is more in keeping with the spirit of the times. The emphasis on the ‘apolitical’ past of the prime minister confers on him an immediate legitimacy in the eyes of the professional Indian middle-class in particular, a class that looks upon its netas with a growing mix of suspicion and, in most instances, outright contempt. For the Indian professional, the fact that Singh is someone who has a well-deserved reputation for integrity and austerity, who has risen through hard work and scholarship, who taught at the Delhi School of Economics and was later Reserve Bank Governor, invests him with just the kind of credentials to place him above the ‘normal’ politician.

In the process, the fact that he has never won an election becomes, ironically, a strength, and not a weakness, because it suggests that Singh is above the sleazy world of electoral politics. Again, the fact that he has no real role in the party organisation works to his advantage since it means that he doesn’t have to associate with the pettiness of party politics.

In the process, his perceived ‘weakness’ as a prime minister without any political base and one who is in office only because of the munificence of Sonia Gandhi actually works to his advantage. For it allows him to deflect attention to the party and not the government, be it on Jharkhand or Bihar, Volcker or Quattrocchi. In other words, the diarchy at the top of India’s ruling order actually ensures that for the first time the PM can absolve himself in a political crisis by deftly shifting the responsibility on to the party leadership. When the Gujarat violence took place, it was Vajpayee who was accused of dithering in the sacking of Narendra Modi. Now, when constitutional democracy is ‘murdered’ in Bihar, Singh can quietly invoke the concept of ‘collective leadership’ to distance himself from the issue.

And yet, there will always be limits to just how much the prime minister can get away with. The Indian middle-class — Singh’s core constituency today — is notoriously fickle, desperately looking for new heroes to valourise. It could be a Narayana Murthy (the current flavour, I might add) one day, a Manmohan Singh the next. While this class appears to value individual integrity above all else, it is also result-oriented.

Spinning grandiose dreams is not enough, unless the dreams are translated into reality. For example, a year ago Singh was celebrated in Mumbai for promising to turn the city into a Shanghai. Today, those words seem like a cruel joke in a city whose infrastructure seems to collapse even faster than the Indian batting middle-order. Nor can you have the prime minister promising to attend to the multiple problems of the Indian farmer when farmers in several parts of the country are still committing suicide. Not enough any longer to convey personal anguish, the citizen wants to see the anguish translate into action. And while it is reassuring to have a prime minister place clean drinking water as his top priority, it’s again not enough to ensure that the issue will be taken out of Vigyan Bhavan to the remote corners of the country.

His middle-class constituency does not doubt Singh’s good intentions, which is why he is enjoying a remarkably extended honeymoon with the electorate. But good intentions are not enough in a country of rising expectations. Sooner or later, Singh will have to answer tough questions on the economy, on a rising fiscal deficit (worsened by the decision to have another pay commission), on foreign policy equations with Washington, on the slowdown in the peace dialogue with Pakistan, on his failure to reward merit in his cabinet, on the growing clout of the Left, on bijli-sadak-pani for the aam aadmi.

These are questions that the prime minister may have skilfully navigated for now by choosing to play the part of the well-intentioned, apolitical politician. But the day could yet come when Singh will also be weighed down by the burden of his own past acts of omission and commission as prime minister. That is the day when the ‘Teflon’ image alone may not be enough to pull him through.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief CNN-IBN and can be contacted

First Published: Feb 03, 2006 01:35 IST