Archive for June, 2011

The Curious Case of the Missing Prime Minister

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

A spectre is haunting India—the spectre of a missing Prime Minister. A question is being asked in political and bureaucratic circles, in corner offices and boardrooms, in newsrooms and in idle conversations, up and down the rungs of our socio-economic ladder. And the voices are getting louder. Yes, where is the Prime Minister?

He is a good man, everyone agrees on that. But this nod to the quality and unimpeachability of his character has become something like the murmur doing down the rounds when P.V. Narasimha Rao became PM. No one seemed to know much about him, except that he had been a politician and a Union minister for as long as anyone could remember. The only thing exceptional about him, it seemed, was that “he knew seven languages”. In the absence of any other attribute to highlight on the CV, wise men muttered that that should—must—be something of an advantage when leading a nation of a thousand languages and dialects.

Of course, Narasimha Rao soon proved that he was much much more than a polyglot. He turned out to be economically bold, politically as shrewd as they come, and spent his five years at the helm radiating an inscrutability that convinced many that there were gears whirring busily, but at a deliberate pace—behind that furrowed forehead. Even inaction, he said famously in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, was a form of action, the decision not to do anything was as valid and strong a decision as its opposite. To the world, this probably came through as profound Eastern philosophy—the sound of one hand clapping rising over the clamour of a billion people, while Indians were left scratching their heads or shrugging cynically. But everyone agreed that this was a man many fathoms deep.

But when one looks at Dr Manmohan Singh, as uncommunicative—and as unimpressive when he does communicate—as Narasimha Rao, one is left with a very different impression. His face and demeanour often seem to reflect more fatigue than focus. When he speaks, we get to know almost nothing; and if he spoke a bit faster, the clichés he mouths would have been tripping over one another. In his seven years as Prime Minister, he has had only two press conferences. Of the first one, halfway through his first term, the only aspect that stands out in my mind is that at one point, he mentioned the non-aligned movement. The non-aligned movement? I doubt if even Fidel Castro would be shedding a tear in memory of that pompous coming-together of nations that were merely technically outside the Soviet Bloc.

In his second press meet, some months ago, with television editors, he did everything short of throwing his arms up in despair, admitting that it was very difficult to get things done with a coalition government. Granted, this was an honest statement, but it was somewhat akin to a magazine editor telling his readers that the issue was two days late on stands this week because he and the assistant editor could not agree on the cover story. Should the reader care? Should we, as a people, care?

Over the last few months, this government has been beset with problems, from the scandal about the appointment of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, to the 2G scam, to black money being stashed abroad, the unending melee over the Jan Lokpal Bill. On none of these issues has the Prime Minister been found anywhere close to the action, or even, apparently, at headquarters, directing the action. If I remember correctly, he has said once or twice that corruption is a bad thing, which is of course very edifying for the masses, both washed and unwashed.

Of course, in a sense, he has a job more difficult than other Prime Ministers we have had, since there is a parallel centre of power at 10 Janpath, an entity that seems unanswerable to anyone. And there’s a young man—well not so young any more—who pops up periodically, harassing penurious village households for bed and board for the night, and abruptly alleging massacres where none happened. And then you have satraps in your own party who make statements clearly defying the government’s stated stance on various issues, and recently the ultimate insult—that Rahul Gandhi is now ready to be PM.

Meanwhile, the man who is PM remains silent, sometimes glimpsed on TV as he walks from one meeting to another, with the hint of a feeble smile on his face.

As PM, the only time perhaps when Dr Manmohan Singh showed his mettle and grit was during the Indo-US nuclear deal, when he put his government on the line for what he believed was right for the country in the long run. But no other example comes to mind immediately. Instead, what one recalls are the following. That as Governor of the Reserve Bank in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s regime, he pursued socialistic economics ardently. That in 1991, when instructed by Narasimha Rao, as Finance Minister, he launched our liberalization programme. And then, when in 1995, the Congress lost three key state elections, under new instructions from Narasimha Rao, he squeezed money supply in a bid to curb inflation, tripping up the Indian corporate sector just as it had got ready for a bold push forward, and plunging the economy into a near-recession which the next government had to tackle.

Dr Manmohan Singh is a good man, and his career shows clearly that he is an excellent executor of directives. But as head of government, he appears a reluctant leader, bemused and possibly dismayed by what he sees around himself, and with the additional burden of trying to second-guess what 10 Janpath and the powerful men hanging around there want, both now and as the way forward.

There are already enough signs of loss of faith in the way the UPA government is going about its job. The stockmarkets are down, foreign direct investment is sluggish, Indian industrialists are increasingly preferring to invest abroad rather than on their own soil. The nation seems to be in stasis, and no one reflects that stasis better than the Prime Minister himself.

He is a good man, but surely the time has come for him to be something more than just that. Surely the time has come for him to stand up and give his countrymen a message of determination and hope, a message delivered in a credible manner, and devoid of age-old clichés. Otherwise, he may end up being judged by history as only a good soul in a bad job.