In Office Without Power
The present impasse over the 2G spectrum episode has generated a debate on whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also guilty along with the former Telecom Minister A Raja. The Hindu newspaper has just released the correspondence between the Prime Minister and the then Telecom Minister, implying that the Prime Minister was well aware of what was happening in the telecom sector in 2007. If so, is he not as “guilty” as Raja? But then such is the public perception of Singh that his worst critics, including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, are not questioning the integrity of the Prime Minister. In fact, Singh is arguably the only Prime Minister of India who has successfully preserved his reputation as a man of great distinction and integrity. I am deliberately not adding the word “honesty”, something I will explain a little later. Singh’s critics are mainly arguing about his devaluing the office of Indian Prime Minister by making a distinction between him as a man of integrity and the office he holds.
There is no doubt that Singh has a formidable international reputation as a leading economist. In India, all his years first as an academician and then as a bureaucrat he proved how essentially he was a simple and low-profile man with good ideas. In fact, his becoming Prime Minister could always be cited as an example of good and talented professionals entering politics successfully. His story should always attract good people into politics, something India needs badly. His becoming the Prime Minister in 2004 further strengthened the country’s deep democratic roots by proving that a poor boy, displaced from his home in what is now Pakistan, could occupy the most important office of the country only in a democracy.
By today’s standard of politics, Singh must be considered one of the humblest Indian politicians. But it does not mean that he has not mastered or exploited the political situation to his advantage. Well, he was “appointed” as the Prime Minister in 2004 first by Sonia Gandhi before formally getting elected as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party, as should have been the normal practice before the President of India invited him to take oath. But the very fact that Sonia chose him despite his negligible Congress background meant that Manmohan was not exactly a political novice. He knew what was politically correct to rise in the ladder under Sonia-controlled Congress.
In fact, remaining humble and low-profile has been Singh’s masterstroke in Indian politics. His “leaders” have reposed in him because they have not considered him to be a threat to their positions. In that sense, contrary to popular perception, he is not exactly a political novice. Maybe he was so at the very beginning of his political career in 1991 when the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao wanted a trained economist as his finance minister to herald the beginning of liberalisation of Indian economy. And it is said that Singh was recommended for the job to Rao by the latter’s immediate predecessor, the late Chandrashekhar. Be that as it may, ever since his entry into politics in 1991, Manmohan Singh has remained low-profile in party-politics and loyal to the party-leader of the day. And in the process, he has never hesitated to do things that are politically correct for his party and the government. For his politics, he has compromised some of his individual reputations like filing a false affidavit that he was ordinarily a resident of Assam. All told, he has been a member of Rajya Sabha all these years as a representative of Assam. And this is the reason why in the beginning of this column I did not use the word “honesty” for describing the Prime Minister. He may have been a man of great integrity, but not honesty in my scheme of things.
As has been pointed out, loyalty to the leader of the day is one of Singh’s greatest political virtues. And that explains why despite occupying the most powerful office of the country, he has projected himself as number-two leader of India, leaving the number-one position to Sonia Gandhi. History will prove later whether this ungrudging surrender to Sonia Gandhi has been out of conviction or necessity. At the moment, we do not have enough data or evidence to know the real truth. A guess—I do not know whether it is safe—is that the loyalty is due to political necessity. Maybe Singh has realised that unlike Narasimha Rao, who also became Prime Minister only because Sonia Gandhi refused to take the responsibility, he could not dictate the rest of the Congress biggies to fall in line by sidelining the Gandhi family. Rao, a veteran with long political administrative experience, knew well the vast powers that an Indian Prime Minister possesses and utilised them fully vis-à-vis his friends and foes alike. Viewed thus, Singh, knowing perhaps his political limitations, has not used his office well enough. Or maybe, personally he has had no inclinations in his life to take risks for bigger goals.
As a result, there are merits in the criticisms that he has lowered the dignity of the office of Prime Minister. The inescapable reality is that the chief political executive of a democratic country anywhere is the supreme leader of his or her party. The American President is the most important leader of his party. So are the British Prime Minister, French President and German Chancellor. India has not been unfamiliar with this global trend. Atal Behari Vajpayee, when Prime Minister, was the tallest leader of the BJP, notwithstanding the RSS factor. So were Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, enough attention has perhaps not been given to the fact that Nehru, following his unpleasant experience with Purushottam Das Tandon as the Congress president in 1950, always wanted a pliant party president. In fact, for the next three years, Nehru himself occupied the post of party president and then onwards ensured only his loyalists in that position. Indira Gandhi later ensured the convention that the Congress Prime Minister was the Congress president. This convention was followed by Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, but broken under Manmohan Singh’s premiership.
The very fact that Singh is not the supreme leader of his party has meant that he would share and surrender many of his powers as the Prime Minister. And this has been precisely happening since 2004. That is why we see that invariably in every government of India advertisement there is the picture of Sonia Gandhi, despite the fact that she does not hold any official position. In fact, as the chairperson of the specially-created National Advisory Council (NAC), Gandhi has been granted powers to summon government files that are otherwise not accessible to anybody, not sworn in specifically by the President of India. She also has powers to question decisions of the government and advise changes. In fact, many cabinet ministers do not even hesitate to give an impression that they report directly to Gandhi rather than the Prime Minister, who can neither appoint nor sack them.
Viewed thus, to argue that Singh is equally corrupt for his helplessness in appointing and then tolerating tainted ministers is rather harsh. Because he may be in “office” but he does not wield “power”.
By Prakash Nanda