Wednesday, May 14, 2014

'Manmohan Singh should have contested 2009 election to make a mark'


The decline of the Congress as a political party with a credible realpolitik to identify with the masses in thelast five years may not be entirely tied to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s paucity of strength to prove himself as an aggressive helmsman in the face of an autocratic high command, but the fact that the Prime Minister caved in to Sonia Gandhi’s post-2009 decisions has a lot to with the disenchantment of the middle class, who had pinned their hopes on a dynamic Prime Minister in 2004-2005. Manmohan Singh rode the wave of globalization in the early 1990s as the finance minister in the erstwhile Narasimha Rao government to carve a niche for himself as a man of vision for India in the new world order. “I think as I say in my book that the single important mistake in the political career of Manmohan Singh was his decision not to contest the election as a Lok Sabha (Parliament) candidate in 2009. Had he contested the Lok Sabha poll, he could have pushed his way harder in the party and it would have been a different government,” writer-journalist Sanjaya Baru, former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said at the launch of a political biography of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh” on May 12, 2014. Baru, who left his career as a journalist for The Financial Express to join Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as his media adviser in the first United Progressive Alliance government in 2004, had seen the man in action for four years with an ear to the ground. 
The Prime Minister had offered him the job with the words, “Sitting here, I know I will be isolated from the outside world, I want you to be my eyes and ears. Tell me what you know, without fear or favour.” Ten years later, Baru is back to journalism but richer in experience after a tumultuous tenure at the Prime Minister’s Office. As Manmohan Singh’s spin doctor and trusted aide for four years, Baru observed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh closely and his often troubled relationship with his ministers, his cautious equations with Sonia Gandhi and how he dealt with big crises like “keeping the Left in amicable humour” and pushing the nuclear deal through.
Baru in his book throws insights into the flaws in Manmohan Singh’s polity as well – and underlines the weaknesses in his persona that have led to his near-disappearance from the media and public space in the last one year - at a time when the UPA was in dire need of a face to project as a Prime Minister of steel to counter the Narendra Modi wave whipped up by the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“Manmohan Singh changed a lot from UPA 1 to UPA II (the two tenures of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance). His perceptions had changed as his persona. I think at the end of the day, it was lack of communication, lack of belief and lack of credibility,” Baru said, pointing to the factors which led to the undoing of Manmohan Singh. But in the same vein, Baru defends the Prime Minister, he had been close to for four years.
“Each coalition and every Prime Minister had to deal with corruption of colleagues they trusted. Rajiv Gandhi had to retain HKL Bhagat in the Cabinet. Jawaharlal Nehru too had corrupt ministers. You cannot blame Dr Singh if he did not take action against his ‘corrupt’ loyalists in the party because they were someone else’s loyalists who defended the Prime Minister (like Sharad Pawar). His equations with Pranab Mukherjee were civil,” the author said.
This is a Barack Obama life story. “If he had succeeded in UPA II, there would not have been any Arvind Kejriwal. He was the middle class dream- the boy from rural Punjab who had to walk miles to school and who won the Adam Smith prize for Economics in London… He could have left behind a legacy. That would have been a middle class role model,” Baru said. 
In his book, Baru explores the beginning of this slide in the final chapter, “Epilogue: Manmohan’s Legacy”. The chapter opens with a one-line question that Prime Minister asks himself. “Am I in Trouble?” in October 2010.
“The nuclear deal may have been the crowning glory of Manmohan Singh’s first term. As Narasimha Rao’s finance minister, he had made history by opening up the economy. Having conceded greater part of the turf to Sonia Gandhi and his senior colleagues, foreign policy was one of the areas he had zealously guarded the space, he had secured for himself. It was in that area that he could articulate his vision for India in a changing world and project his personality without coming into conflict with the priorities and the profile of the Congress president,” Baru says in his book.
Had there been no opposition to the nuclear deal, it would have neither have gained Manmohan Singh notoriety among his critics, Had the BJP claimed credit for starting it all or the Left had claimed credit, it would have many founding fathers. Had Sonia Gandhi fully backed Manmohan Singh on the deal, the Congress would have claimed credit. But none of it happened. Manmohan Singh was left to his own devices to move the world community in favour of the deal. He went to Washington DC, China and Pakistan to bend resistance over the deal. In the face of Sonia Gandhi’s wavering commitment to the nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh underscored his own relevance. It was around this time that Manmohan Singh displayed his skills as an astute politico by befriending Amar Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadavas well  to consolidate Congress position after the Left deserted Congress.
“His act of self-assertion against an ideologically motivated cabal dictating foreign policy to the government paid off. His reputation soared. The urban middle class that had deserted the Congress and had voted for Atal Bihari Vajpeyee in 1999 returned to the Congress fold in 2009. With that electoral victory, he now made a different kind of history, becoming the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru to have returned to office after a full five-year term and with an improved majority to boot,” Baru says in his book.
Manmohan Singh did not contest the Lok Sabha poll in 2009 but became the indisputable candidate to head the country- and in course obligated himself to the high command. “In democratic politics, electoral victory is the ultimate test of performance and the prize every politician cherishes,” Baru writes. Dr Singh believed that he had delivered on that score in the summer of 2009, but then “he made the cardinal mistake of imagining that victory was his”.
Bit by bit, he was put in place and "defanged", when Sonia Gandhi nipped his dreams of inducting own coterie of ministers. She offered the financial portfolio to then Union minister Pranab Mukherjee without even consulting Manmohan Singh. It set off a silent power struggle between Singh and his party command which put its own ministerial apparatus in place bucking the Prime Minister's wishes- and choices.   

-Madhusree Chatterjee
(The book has been published by Penguin Viking. It is priced Rs 599)


1 comment:

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