Endgame for PM?

In the past week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has come under pressure on three counts. First, at his meeting with leaders of opposition parties, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee seemed to indicate the Congress was willing to concede a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) inquiry into the 2G telecom scandal if that was the only route to saving the Budget Session of Parliament from disruption. Should this perception be correct, it cannot please Dr Singh and his inner council.

Sections of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) have been opposing the JPC idea because they fear it will ask hard questions of precisely what and when Dr Singh knew about the spectrum bazaar that the disgraced A. Raja had been running as telecom minister. Did Dr Singh ignore advice from the law and finance ministers and refuse to curb Mr Raja? If so, why did he do so? These concerns, as well as the general fear that a JPC may be quickly reduced to an all-purpose fishing expedition, have had the PMO in a funk.
It is not as if Dr Singh’s adversaries — his non-sympathisers, if you prefer — in the Congress and in the Union Cabinet are unaware of his misgivings. If they are shrugging shoulders and saying a JPC is inevitable, it is at least partly because they believe it will embarrass Dr Singh. In short, it will create an uncomfortable situation for Dr Singh that others, those with a smaller stake in Dr Singh’s political career, can live with.
Second, Arun Shourie, the former telecom minister, has charged he warned Dr Singh about the telecom scandal even while it was occurring, identified a whistle-blower within (possibly) the department of telecom and sought a meeting with the principal secretary to the Prime Minister. Perhaps Mr Shourie is overstating his case and perhaps he is fighting several battles — within his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and elsewhere — at the same time. Yet, is he entirely making up his claim?
That is what the Congress spokesperson alleged when he more or less accused Mr Shourie of being a liar. However, it is telling that no denial of such an interaction with Mr Shourie — maybe even a short conversation in Punjabi in the corridors of Parliament, as some have put it –— has come from the PMO. Dr Singh has retreated into his habitual silence. In the public mind, a grave accusation by Mr Shourie — like him or not, he has a certain standing among the Indian middle classes — is going uncontested by Dr Singh himself.
That Dr Singh reportedly spoke to Mr Shourie on the phone over the weekend and invited him for a cup of coffee in the coming days may assuage individual insecurities and egos in New Delhi. Will it solve Dr Singh’s wider credibility problem?
Third, the sweetheart deal between the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and a dubious private company, which apparently received valuable spectrum at cut-price rates, has implicated the PMO. If nothing else, it is answerable for severe negligence. The department of space comes under the ambit of the PMO and if Isro and an unknown company — which is being linked, as it happens, to yet another former Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam minister in the Union government — entered into a dodgy agreement then, at the very minimum, the PMO is guilty of lack of oversight and of incompetence.
What is all this adding up to? Nobody is accusing Dr Singh of personal wrongdoing or of financially benefiting from decisions of his government. However, his remarkable ability to look the other way when irregular decisions are taken by various arms of his government, and even by agencies of which his office has direct charge, is hurting him. If his civil servants, including senior functionaries in the PMO, can mask tricky contracts and agreements from him, Dr Singh is losing a key attribute: the eye for detail, the ability to pore over thick files — in the manner of an old hand in the Government of India — and identify the one hidden loophole. There is also the cynicism with which he has watched, but not intervened, as swindles have beset his government.
Under direct attack in such a manner for the first time, and with his push for economic reform and a more purposeful overhaul of the Union council of ministers not finding traction, where does this place Dr Singh? There are some in the Congress who believe — and a smaller number who actually hope — he will throw in the towel, leave 7, Race Course Road and walk away from a situation he cannot personally be comfortable with. There is another view that his government may just limp along, given it has three-and-a-half years of its term left.
Either way, however, Dr Singh is out of political capital. His administration is looking decidedly lame duck. The appointment of a JPC may buy it time and allow a temporary “business as usual” phase, but paradoxically — given what even a semi-hostile JPC could do to the government — it will reinforce the lameness of the duck. In real terms, as a measure of solid policy initiatives, the Manmohan Singh prime ministry may be over.
Dr Singh has served India well. He has been India’s best ambassador at the global high table. As an intellectual among heads of government, a sober, thinking man, he has set the standard for future Prime Ministers as they seek to represent India among the powers of the world. However, recent months have also exposed the limitations of having an essentially apolitical man as Prime Minister, and of a “dual system” that separates hard political authority from a technocratic management of government. In the short run, such a system seems innovative; in the long run, it is not sustainable.
Those are thoughts for the future. For the moment, Mr Singh is being called to account for possible acts of omission, negotiating traps his colleagues are laying for him and trying to understand the fickleness of the public mood and of media adulation. For him, the sense of gloom is unmistakable. As for India, 2011 already seems one grim year.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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