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The PM?s two-year mark

It?s time to take stock of Dr Manmohan Singh?s performance in office ? and he gets a decent 7.5 out of 10, writes Inder Kumar Gujral.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 04:46 IST

How do I view the first two years of the Manmohan Singh era? To do justice to it, let me segregate the two: the personality of Manmohan Singh and the challenges that confronted his regime. Manmohan Singh is the first Prime Minister who is not from the Congress stock, yet he rules on its behalf. The credit for success of this novel arrangement primarily goes to Sonia Gandhi. No one had ever any doubt about Manmohan Singh’s integrity or intellectual capabilities though no one was sure if such a diarchy would last. Particularly when she had sidelined some veterans of her own party. All the same, it has worked to general satisfaction of the nation.

Of late we see some chinks in the armour of this dichotomy that is not caused by any of its political adversaries but by a leading insider who always had his private agenda. The ghost of ‘quota in higher education’ was dug out without prior approval of the Cabinet or the Congress Party’s Working Committee or even endorsed by its president. Even the coalition’s Common Minimum Programme had not spelt it thus. The PM may recall that this new lover of the ‘quota for the OBC’ was a strong opponent of the Mandal Commission recommendations. He was also averse to Sitaram Kesari’s efforts to re-cast the Congress party’s policy in this regard. It bears repetition to recall his strong aversion to VP Singh, the leading proponent of the ‘Quotas-for OBC’ philosophy! The DMK, a vigorous advocate of this doctrine, was falsely accused of a nefarious role in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Manmohan Singh may also remember how much his mentor, PV Narasimha Rao, was tormented by the same worthies. One hopes that such machinations will not deflect Manmohan Singh from his policies nor would he lose his cool or sagacity in sorting out this issue to every ones satisfaction.

I think the PM’s task will get even more troubled as the Rashtrapati and Vice Presidential elections get nearer. Selection of the ruling party candidates for these high offices will rouse dormant ambitions of some. We will soon see more of the ‘private agendas’ to test Singh’s acumen and Sonia Gandhi’s stamina.

In these two years of Manmohan Singh’s leadership, India’s handling of the Nepal crisis caused disbelief at home and dismay in Kathmandu. Initially the PM was consulting some senior leaders but soon he passed on baton to the MEA mandarins who were more keen to accommodate Gyanendra’s sensitivities and American catechisms than to get attuned to the democratic sentiments of Nepalese people. They failed to comprehend that the widely spread upsurge was not a traditional ‘political agitation’ but a ‘revolutionary upsurge’ wanting to terminate the time worn monarchy. Our diplomacy imparted an impression of India’s priority to retain the status quo ante in Nepal. Thank God that towards the end a leading member of the CPI (M) saved the day for us. Otherwise ‘a dominant regional power’ had lost its bearings!

But it was not all black for our foreign policy. Singh has won laurels for his handling of Indo-Pak and Sino-India relations. The ghost of civil war in Sri Lanka and the fundamentalist violence in Bangladesh is haunting the region. We have still to determine if we can play any role in these neighbouring countries.

The PM’s personal handling of the Kashmir situation has given a message of hope to the distressed people.

Only a day back, a leading journalist from Chhatisgarh gave me an account of the prevailing public despair in that remote part of the country. He was deeply disappointed that the PM was not providing the needed leadership to the states where the Naxals are causing immense damage. It makes them feel that the Government of India is not focused enough to fully comprehend the menace that is plaguing the entire tribal belt. “Unless the Prime Minister and his important colleagues visit us frequently to boost the sinking public morale, merely sending of a few companies of police or casual media statements would not help”!

According to an astute observer of the international affairs, “an unfortunate impression prevails in the public mind that India has moved too close to the American diplomacy imparting an impression of servility.” The PM must keep in mind this widely spread cynicism while working out his policy responses to the Iranian imbroglio.

Time and again Singh has exhibited his humility and capacity to absorb shocks. But that is not enough for leader of a billion people. Nehru has bequeathed us the legacy of pride that every Prime Minister of India is expected to preserve. I favour good relations with USA, but it must conform to basic paradigms of the NAM.

Singh is temperamentally a practioner of the Congress culture that is a culture of moderations: moderate in virtues and also, moderate in views. A culture that is left of the centre and also centre of the right. It is a culture of intellectual moderation that may be called liberalism. Unfortunately, he has often exhibited more of it while dealing with his fellows in the party who defy him to harm the Nation’s well being.

Singh has often talked about the urgent need for a ‘second Green Revolution’. But the only tangible step taken so far is to import wheat. There is nothing inherently wrong in it though it has caused anxiety to the agrarian community who believe that shrinkages in land for wheat farming is the main culprit. The nation is pained to hear the Minister of Agriculture telling the Parliament that more than one lakh kisans have committed suicides in the two preceding decades because of the heavy debt burdens. Does it not a call for a whole sale waiver of agrarian debts as was done by the VP Singh government in 1990? Radical agrarian credit reforms are urgently called for. The urban elite may not like it but desperate situations require radical remedies!

Manmohan Singh has rightly placed his finger on the nation’s energy deficiency and its dismal future, but he has still to discover a reliable route for its redressal. The Bush-Singh agreement regarding nuclear energy is lingering. Similar is the fate of the Central Asian gas pipelines. No one knows if these will ever touch our soil.

I hope the PM appreciates that a leader’s role is like that of a cyclist who must keep on pedaling, and peddle harder and faster because it is an uphill task to keep the nation engaged. All said, my estimate of Manmohan Singh’s two years in office gets him seven out of ten marks for his efforts to safeguard national interests. I could perhaps add another .5 for his diligently retaining the nation’s faith in his leadership!

(The writer is a former Prime Minister of India)

First Published: May 21, 2006 04:46 IST