Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Manmohan breaks out

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is, to use a quaint Americanism, “breaking out of the reservation”. In other words, he is beginning to break the bonds that have confined him to being a surrogate for Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. Approaching the second year of his second term as the Prime Minister of India, the 78-year-old Singh has become acutely aware of the finite nature of his time in office. So he seems to have decided to do things his way and break the bonds that have made him appear to be a mere puppet for Ms Gandhi.

In a Prime Minister who is into his second term, you would say that this is not unexpected. But then, Dr Singh is not your usual PM and neither is his rebellion quite a rebellion. He has been uncommonly loyal to Ms Gandhi, a loyalty not born out of obsequiousness that comes naturally to many in the Congress party created by Indira Gandhi, but more an innate sense of duty to the person and party who have propelled him to the high office.
Dr Singh’s breakout is more complex; it is not seen as a rebellion, as such breakouts were seen in the case of American Indians aka Native Americans. What he is seeking is more space to carry out policies close to his heart in the areas of administration and governance, though, not politics. Though he is now a seasoned politician in his own right, there is absolutely no indication that.

Mr Singh seeks to challenge the political primacy of the party president, even by implication. He has no stakes in the politics of the party.
For him, the party will be over the day he demits office and that day is finitely determined—at best, in early 2014, about four years from now. At worst, of course, it could be any time, given the vagaries of heading a minority government in a Parliamentary democracy.


The relationship between Ms Gandhi and Dr Singh was an unusual one to start with, since, in India, at least, no one has voluntarily shied away from taking the office of Prime Minister that comes as part of being the leading political party in the wake of a general election; indeed, to the contrary, many have avidly sought it. Mr Singh was clearly Ms Gandhi’s nominee once she decided that she would not take it up. Since in a parliamentary system, the prime minister is also the de facto, if not
de jure, leader of the party, the relationship had to either progress, or regress.
Six years down the line it has clearly advanced and evolved to a point where Manmohan wants to be Manmohan, and Ms Gandhi is not standing in the way. At this juncture, Ms Gandhi doesn’t have too many choices.
First, Singh is clearly not challenging her political authority. Second, even if he were, what options does she have? To be seen to be removing a successful Prime Minister would be politically disastrous. Third, she doesn’t really have an alternate figure who is a first rate administrator, politically unambitious and as widely respected as Dr Singh. Fourth, the person that she wants as PM, young Rahul Gandhi, shows no inclination to accept ministerial responsibilities, leave alone the burden of prime ministership.
And, most important, the break out is all about policies that the Gandhis can live with —a dogged insistence in making peace with Pakistan and China and a determined nudge to the economy to the high growth path by carrying out the so-called second generation reforms. In almost all these areas, Dr Singh is on the same page as Mr Gandhi, if not his mother and the party old guard.
The first breakout was in the term of the first UPA government when Dr Singh took the Indo-US nuclear deal in his teeth and ran the race alone till the party decided to back him to the point of facing a high-risk no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. The victory of the party set the stage for the election outcome of 2009 which was not just about the departure and decimation of the Left and Lalu Yadav, but also about the revelation of the enormous potential the Congress had for re-establishing its once firm hold across the country.
When he took office last year, Singh was no longer looked on as some kind of a puppet. Indeed, he made that clear by putting his own stamp on the Union Cabinet where he ensured that “difficult” ministers were left out and people who owed some loyalty to him were promoted.
With his chosen P. Chidambaram in the Union Home Ministry, Singh shunted Pranab Mukherji to the Finance hot seat (remember this was at the height of the economic downturn), put a relative nonentity, S.M. Krishna, in External Affairs and promoted Anand Sharma to full Cabinet rank in Commerce. He also sent clear signals to allies that the government would be less accommodating of corruption and inefficiency. M.K. Narayanan did last out for a while, but probably only to wait for his chosen successor Shivshankar Menon to retire as Foreign Secretary.
The second breakout has been in the area of foreign policy, especially in relation to Pakistan. It is no secret that India’s Pakistan policy has been driven—first by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then by Manmohan Singh. The two have personally taken decisions that have cut through bureaucratic obstruction time and again. Sharm-el-Shaikh was the first indicator that the Prime Minister was ready to resume serious efforts to engage Pakistan.


But that came a cropper since the formulations he authorised on Balochistan and the Indo-Pak dialogue turned out to be too far in advance of the Mumbai-bruised public opinion back home. Singh, the economist, knows his business well, but, Singh the realpolitik practitioner still has some learning to do.
The third breakout is visible in pushing the economic reform agenda. The moves to remove subsidies in oil and fertiliser prices clearly puts the PM against the conventional wisdom in his party, as does the decision to begin privatisation of profit-making public sector units.
Singh is aware of his place in the country’s iconography as the driver of the first stage of economic reforms that have inaugurated a period of high economic growth in the past decade. With the Left hobbling him, he was unable to move an inch. But now he is free and he is determined to push in all the areas that he can.


Usually when American Indians, or Native Americans, broke the reservation, they came to grief. History and the big guns were against them. Singh, on the other hand, is convinced that he is on the right side of history. 2014 is his finite limit.
He will be 82 then. If he wants to leave a stamp of any kind, he must strike out now. There is no tomorrow for him. His two chosen areas are a desire to be the first PM to put India on the path of double digit growth, and the one to make durable peace with Pakistan.
A reasonable analysis at this point in 2010 would suggest that the former task is more doable than the latter, at least in the time span available of the good doctor’s leadership. But you can’t quibble with his vision: All the boats must rise together in the South Asian harbour. Any state left behind will drag the others down.
But Pakistan of today seems more inclined to hurl its jihadist armies to foil India, rather than make peace, and this is where Dr Singh’s problems really lie.
But you have to hand it to him. He is determined to succeed.
This article first appeared in Mail Today March 13, 2010

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