Saturday, February 19, 2011

Don't write the PM off just yet

It should have been said of him that he came, he saw and he conquered. But the Prime Minister’s modest goal in his carefully managed “interaction” with the TV media on Wednesday,  was not to emulate Caesar, but his wife, whose aim  was merely to remain above suspicion. Dr Manmohan Singh’s decision was not a matter of choice, but the need of the hour, since he sits besieged by the rising tide of public anger relating to corruption in his United Progressive Alliance government.
The Prime Minister may have had an immediate goal in organising the “interaction” — to break the downward spiral his government seems to have entered. But there seems to be a larger goal—to transform the political danger confronting his coalition into an opportunity to best the Opposition.

This may seem counter-intuitive at present when his government is beleaguered, and even the conduct of the coming Budget session of Parliament is in doubt. But Dr Singh has not reached where he is by linear thinking. His chosen martial art is judo.

He has in the past, too, used his seeming weakness to come out on top. He did it in 2004 with regard to his rivals in the Congress party to gain Sonia Gandhi’s affections, and he repeated it in 2008, and lined up his reluctant party to push his Indo-US nuclear agenda through parliament, by hook and by crook. Mr Advani and the Bharatiya Janata Party grandees who are salivating at the prospect of returning to government be warned.
If there was one unambiguous message in today’s interaction, it was that the PM was not about to put in his papers out of disgust or frustration, or the barracking tactics of the Opposition.  “I have a lot of unfinished business,” he said and “I intend to stay the course.”
If the PM appears all alone right now, it is also, perhaps, that he chooses to be so. The subtext of the press meet was to absolve Manmohan Singh from any blame in the scandals that have hit the UPA government.  The PM seems to have subtly islanded himself  from not just his own government, but also his party.
After the TRAI, Telecom Commission and the Finance Ministry had approved of A Raja’s decision not to auction the spectrum, “ I was in no position to insist that an auction took place,” he noted at one point. At another he declared, “ I have not met anybody myself,” in reference to a charge that the PMO was in the know on the Antrix-Devas deal. And, most importantly, he declared  “ I am not afraid of appearing before any committee, including the JPC.” He doesn’t have to belabour the point, but the emphatic “I” says it all.
There is an artfulness in his defensive tone. He  acknowledged, for example, that he could make mistakes, but, he pointed out, he was not as bad as he was being depicted, presumably by the media. Yet, his message was clear—he intended to stay the course. “We shall overcome, we shall prevail,” were  the brave, if somewhat hopeful closing lines of his prepared statement.
No one has, even now, questioned the Prime Minister’s sincerity or his honesty. He provided reasonably convincing explanations for why he, personally, cannot be blamed for either the 2G sale or the Antrix-Devas deal, you can even accept his point on the importance of giving space in the coalition to the partners to determine their own nominees. But surely, there is an element of naiveté in not understanding as to why the DMK was so insistent in getting the telecom portfolio. It wasn’t to serve the public.
The real issue remains the need for the PM to pull out of the downward spiral his government is caught in. And the question in everyone’s mind is whether Wednesday’s  effort can give some breathing space to what looks like a dying government.  The jury is clearly out on that. 

It wasn’t surprising that the events in West Asia—the overthrow of tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt — was also brought into the meet by a questioner. The PM’s answer was correct, if predictable. India is a democracy, at least in terms of providing periodic opportunities for the people to change their government.
Alarmingly, what we are witnessing in India is the slow erosion of the solid political edifice that has largely kept social and political peace in India. It is being brought on by a careless political class that seems determined to live on past political capital.
Where in Egypt we see the possible beginning of a process of the construction of a democracy, in India we are witnessing  an unthinking effort to destroy it. Sadly, the very people designated to  lead the democratic system— the politicians— are in the forefront of the effort.
The Prime Minister has said that he is dead serious about getting to the bottom of the scams that have undermined his government and not sparing anyone.  The big question is: Has the PM bought enough time from an angry public to ensure that he can push through the Union Budget for the coming year, and then carry out his promised exercise of deep restructuring and reshuffle of his Cabinet?   

The key is in the choices the PM makes in the coming three months. Will he, for example, bring a bill that will create an  empowered Lok Pal to check corruption? Can he truly rid his Cabinet of the corrupt  notwithstanding what he quaintly calls “coalition dharma”? Will the lumbering legal process make a visible impact in the Commonwealth Games, Adarsh Society, 2G and Devas-Antrix scams? Can enough be done in this short period to deter our venal babus and politicians?  
Even so, you must give Dr Singh full marks for trying. He may have come across as being  nervous and defensive, but to write him off would be a serious mistake.  The press meet was a carefully considered act, aimed at communicating with the middle class which plays a key role in shaping opinion in the country.
With his humility and genuine sincerity, the prime minister, offering himself to  interrogation by a JPC,  would have gone across well with the  tens of millions who  witnessed the media interaction. They may even agree with the PM that it is the media which is sapping national confidence, not the corrupt netas and babus.
Dr Manmohan Singh will have achieved his short-term goal if he has bought a couple of months he says he needs to show that he means business with regard to UPA-II and its agenda. But the longer term goal of restoring his own reputation and that of his government could be more elusive.
A rotten edifice that came up over decades cannot be dismantled and rebuilt in a short space of half a term of a government, that, too, one that has been so seriously implicated in all manner of wrongdoing.
Mail Today February 17, 2011

No comments: