Manmohan Narasimha’s Disappointing Pupil
How does one rate Manmohan Singh as a Prime Minister? This question is being asked in the political and intellectual circles all over the country these days, particularly after his former press advisor has come out with a book on him. As I have not read the book, I will not be able to comment on its contents. However, Sanjay Baru, its author, says that the book is essentially a positive account of Singh during his first tenure as the Prime Minister (2004-09). If there are some critical references, that, according to Baru, indicated the difficult environment-marked by party President Sonia Gandhi’s direct control over key cabinet ministers and her dictation of the government’s agenda—in which the Prime Minister operated. Our cover story this week highlights these aspects.
In his last press conference (which has been a rarity, indeed, under Singh’s premiership), the Prime Minister had said he would leave it to History to judge his government. Whatever his critics may say, the fact remains that Singh will be remembered as India’s third longest serving Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Even if his record is going to be broken subsequently by one of his successors, he will still be remembered for his record of being the first Prime Minister to get reelected for a second term (2009-2014) despite running a coalition government full-term in between 2004 and 2009. This is no mean achievement.
It should be noted that since 1989 no major party has been able to win an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. As a consequence, every government since 1989 has either been a minority government, with supporting partners, or a coalition. And that is primarily because there has not been a single party which could form a government at the Centre and survive on its own strength. Each Indian government in Delhi since 1989 has been a coalition one or some of its variations. While the Prime Minister has belonged mostly to the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, his government has consisted of smaller regional parties.
Janata Dal-led National Front government under V P Singh (1989-90) was unstable, essentially because it was a minority government based on the outside support of the BJP and CPM (they did not join the government). It fell when the BJP withdrew its support to the government over the controversial issue of mosque vs. temple in Ayodhya. A breakaway group of the Janata Dal, consisting of only 50-odd MPs formed the next government under Chandra Shekhar with the outside support of the Congress party; but the arrangement did not last even six months. The Congress minority government of P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) precariously managed to hold the fort for a full term, but on a highly dubious manner of buying support from the small parties through bribery and defection to win the votes of confidence in the Lok Sabha.
Of course, in between 1996 and 1998, the then single largest party, the BJP, was denied power, but the government of the day, the Janata Dal-led United Front, first under Deve Gowda and then under I K Gujaral, was a conglomeration of small parties but supported by the second largest party of the day, Congress, from outside, ensuring thereby that the government had the legislative majority in the Lok Sabha, the prerequisite for remaining in office. This experiment fell prematurely as the Congress withdrew the support on some trivial issues. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Behrari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Manmohan Singh (2004-2009) proved that coalition governments could last their full terms of five years each. In fact, Manmohan Singh won, with a bigger Congress tally, the 2009 elections too and thus became the head of the first incumbent federal coalition government to be reelected for another fresh term of five years.
However, History does not remember only what one is or was; it also takes into account what one does or has done. In other words, a person’s place in history is determined by his or her achievements (or failures). Seen this way, what will Manmohan Singh be remembered for? And here the outgoing Prime Minister has had serious limitations. Even before Baru’s book came to the light, it was a common knowledge that as Prime Minister, Singh has not been able to assert his authority. He has been a terrible communicator. He has not displayed any sense of conviction or clarity—another important attribute of a good leader – for a single idea that can be said to be his exclusive, which did not originate from his party or Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s dubious National Advisory Council.
Baru, of course, says that during his first term, Singh stood like a rock for the Indo-US nuclear deal, even at a grave risk to the life of his government, following the desertion of the Communists from the UPA I. In my considered opinion, this is partially true. The idea of having a nuclear deal with the United States originated from the previous Vajpayee government, something Manmohan Singh repeatedly said to garner the support of the opposition BJP. Secondly, if the nuclear deal was so dear to Singh’s heart, then how can one explain the fact that during his second term, the deal for all practical purposes is on its death-bed due to the stupid liability clause that the Parliament legislated. Had Singh been a man of conviction, he would have resisted tooth and nail the text of the liability clause as dictated by the BJP. The text of the liability requirements is so horrendous that it has defied international practices, as a result of which India is now virtually standing alone in the nuclear market.
Singh similarly did not show any semblance of courage in dealing with his own ministers and bureaucrats who have been directly dealing with Sonia Gandhi. It is unthinkable that a Prime Minister anywhere in the world will say openly, that too to the Supreme Court, that official in the Prime Minister’s Office dealt with important papers pertaining to the 2G scam or coal scam without his knowledge and that he is not responsible for what his officials did. The point is that Singh has been a silent spectator to the repeated damages to the very institution of the Prime Minister, the head of the central government.
In fact, Singh should have learnt some lessons from Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, who I consider to be India’s best Prime Minister so far. As has been pointed out above, Rao led a minority government for five years. He too, like Singh, was Sonia Gandhi’s choice in 1991. But see his
achievement. When Rao became Prime Minister, the nation was on the verge of bankruptcy. It is he who took
the unprecedented decision of liberalizing India’s economy and chose, of all persons, a civil servant, who was none other than Manmohan Singh himself, as the country’s finance minister to carry out the reforms. In appointing Manmohan Singh as the finance
minister, Rao did not take
As the Prime Minister, Rao had clarity and courage to communicate to the countrymen directly in a broadcast: “We are determined to address the problems of the economy in a decisive manner. This government is committed to removing the cobwebs that come in the way of rapid industrialisation. We will work towards making India internationally competitive, taking full advantage of…opportunities offered by the evolving global economy…We also welcome foreign direct investment so as to accelerate the tempo of development, upgrade our technologies and to promote our exports. Obstacles that come in the way of allocating foreign investment on a sizable scale will be removed. A time-bound programme will be worked out to streamline our industrial policies and programmes to achieve the goal of a vibrant economy that rewards creativity, enterprise and innovativeness.” If India is still a happening country in the world and the world is noticing its great potentials in wealth creation, the credit is due solely to Rao.
In the ultimate analysis, a strong Prime Minister is one who is not awed by difficult systemic conditions in place but uses these very conditions to reach appropriate decisions in the areas of policymaking and government management. This was what Rao did by making full use of his authority both as a leader of his own party and as Prime Minister. Rao knew it very well that within a parliamentary cabinet system, the Prime Minister’s authority stems at least in part from his position as the leader of the majority party in Parliament and that a Prime Minister who renounces this authority will struggle to steer the rudder of government. This does not mean that an effective Prime Minister will ignore his own party or the party President. What it means is that the wishes of the Prime Minister should be clearly reflected during the decision-making process within the ruling party. If the Prime Minister sets the basic direction on policy and legislation is proposed that accurately reflects these views, then it should be possible for concrete ideas to emerge from the governing party during this process.
Unfortunately, this has not happened under Manmohan Singh’s 10 years as the Prime Minister. Thus, he is an unworthy disciple of Narasimha Rao, India’s best Prime Minister so far.
By Prakash Nanda