Head in a tailspin

The problem is not Mamohan Singh’s intentions or competence; it is to do with his situation. He is probably the first PM without any sort of political base or constituency.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have gone into a shell; he rarely speaks out or announces the kind of measures desperately needed to instil confidence in the country’s faltering economy; he maintains a stony silence on the slew of reforms so necessary to repair the country’s vitiated political atmosphere; he seldom smiles and occasionally mumbles about coalition compulsions. From all accounts, it would appear that Dr Singh has withdrawn from the political frontlines.

Yet, it was not so long ago when he was seen as a valiant figure destined to lead the country out of its socialist past, determined to dismantle the many administrative and political hurdles to prosperity and cleanse the country’s soiled polity.
Today, he sits silently at the centre of power, surrounded by layers of a powerful bureaucracy. The enormous walls of South Block muffle the murmur of discontent on the streets and the growing complaints about the nation going adrift.
It is, however, inconceivable that Dr Singh can remain entirely inured to the mood of the nation, something which has found reflection in every election in recent times. Nor can he be unaware of the urgent need to wrench the country out of the rut it is in. In all probability he is more than mindful of time slipping through his fingers; yet, he is unable to act.
The problem is not the Prime Minister himself, his intentions or his competence; it is to do with his situation. The problem stems from the fact that he is probably the country’s first Prime Minister without any sort of political base or constituency.
Dr Singh remains an unelected Prime Minister, brought in through the Upper House from the state of Assam where he is purportedly a tenant. The real power, as everybody knows, lies elsewhere.
The coterie that heads and controls the Congress, the dominant constituent of the ruling coalition, has been steadily losing political ground in recent times. In elections and in Parliament, the Congress finds itself on the backfoot. It is this political retreat that has pushed the Prime Minister into a corner and since he is not a politician, he is unable to fight his way out.
A weakened Congress has become increasingly vulnerable and indecisive and so has Dr Singh. It is difficult to imagine that this is the same Prime Minister who stood resolute in support of the Indo-US nuclear deal or the person responsible for the economic liberalisation of the early Nineties.
Today, the government seems to be cowering in the face of constant assault. The almost daily humiliation it suffers at the hands of its maverick Bengal ally has become a national spectacle.
Industry leaders complain of the lack of policy initiatives and the failure to take reforms forward. Most economic forecasts for the country have turned gloomy and the stock market, like the Indian rupee, has been plummeting.
The government’s only response is that such problems are inevitable in a coalition government and that things will improve if enough tax revenues could be sucked out to cover its fiscal profligacy. Far from being a remedy, this has further dampened business sentiments.
Negative sentiments are not restricted to business and industry but have filtered through to the common man. The result is an inevitable urge to contemplate an alternative leadership.

The principal Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), believes with some justification that the negative vote against the Congress will help it in the next general elections.
This is unfortunate because the BJP has done nothing to deserve an electoral victory. It is viewed as being as corrupt and opportunistic as the Congress. The BJP also steadfastly refuses to support any action to clean the polity and is muddled about economic reforms.
Yet, one figure that has emerged ahead of all others is Gujarat’s controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi. He is viewed, by sections of the BJP’s leaders and voters, as a possible future Prime Minister. Mr Modi might be an able administrator and industry-friendly politician, but he is also one of the few national leaders reviled by the country’s secular constituency.
His elevation to the prime ministership would be unusual, and disturbing, given that the Prime Minister has always been someone perceived to be above communal politics. This was true even of the last BJP Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, despite his party’s ideology, was considered acceptable to all religious communities.
Within the Congress, too, there appear to be few alternatives. The only Congress leader with the requisite credentials for the top job — Pranab Mukherjee — is in all probability being kicked upstairs. Also, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress scion, having disappointed all by his poor showing in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections has been rendered ineligible for the top job for the moment.
The Left, too, is in disarray and in no position to provide national leadership. As for regional leaders, the less said the better. The stasis in which Dr Singh is caught is indicative of the depth of the political abyss in which the country is currently plunged.
The Congress’ second electoral victory was in no small part due to prime ministerial performance during the coalition’s first term. Dr Singh was seen as a leader who could be an engine of change and take the nation forward.
The considerable goodwill generated for the Congress during its first term has been completely squandered in the second term thanks to disclosures of huge corruption, maladministration and corporate favouritism.
Now it is up to the Congress high command to help Dr Singh climb out of the shell he has withdrawn into.
Given the lack of a credible alternative and the dangerous paralysis gripping the nation, it is imperative that the current Prime Minister does not withdraw further. Should that happen, the Congress, too, would be interred with him for a long time.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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