The most immediate political challenge the United Progressive Alliance government faces is protecting the authority of the prime minister. Contrary to expectations, the challenge to his authority is coming not from the fact that there is a dual source of power within the party. Rather the challenge is coming from the fact that almost every minister and ally seems to easily upstage the prime minister and his message. Chief ministers from Punjab to Andhra Pradesh are taking momentous policy decisions with grave consequences for the Congress, without consulting the Centre. Central ministers routinely deny consulting the prime minister.
In the press, the prime minister often appears overshadowed by statements from his cabinet colleagues, not to mention blackmail from his allies. And even the one significant appointment that had his stamp all over it, the elevation of Montek Singh Ahluwalia as deputy chairman of the Planning Commission seems less authoritative than it first appeared. For the Planning Commission has been expanded to include more cabinet members, and there is no doubt that heavyweights like Sharad Pawar and Laloo Prasad Yadav will leave an undue mark on its deliberations.
But the real danger is that the government will end up facing crises no one in the top leadership intended to bring about. The dismissal of four governors and the delayed reaction in the Shibu Soren case have compromised the ability of this government to set new yardsticks of constitutional propriety. One of the mandates of this government was to take us beyond the dangerous politics of identity that have marked the last few years of Indian politics. One chief minister in Andhra Pradesh is playing politics with reservations for Muslims. Another cabinet minister is using as sensitive an issue as Godhra for his own ends. Whatever one may think of the desirability of a new commission to look into Godhra, it is something that should have the imprimatur of impartiality, and ought to involve the relevant ministries like home and defence.
The human resource development minister is missing a historic opportunity to move beyond the debilitating “saffron versus red history” debate. All these are issues that have the potential for polarizing politics and can seriously compromise a long-term strategy to defeat Hindutva. But the prime minister seems to have little control over the Congress’s ability to define secularism in a principled way.
Of course, it is a reality in coalition politics that allies will extract their pound of flesh. And who dares to stop Laloo in his tracks' Chandrababu Naidu routinely took advantage of his position in the National Democratic Alliance. But there is a real danger that the allies will forestall the prime minister’s legislative agenda, both directly and indirectly. For instance, it was clear that the left would oppose increasing foreign direct investment in sectors such as insurance. But the Bharatiya Janata Party had initially sounded conciliatory, and would have contemplated supporting legislation to this effect. But by dropping the Godhra inquiry issue at the moment that he did, Laloo has simply short-circuited any possibility of legislative cooperation across the party aisles.
In addition, he may have produced a rift between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. But most important, in the budget session of parliament, where Manmohan Singh’s new deal for India should have dominated debate, the budget has been wiped off the front pages, not to mention the floor of parliament. The prime minister is certainly not responsible for most of the events that have overtaken the budget during the last week. But there is more that he and his close advisors can do to appear in command of the situation. The irony is that both the prime minister and the Congress president are increasingly appearing to be bystanders, one unable to project the governance agenda, the other unable to bring different elements of the party to heel.
The prime minister does not have much room for manoeuvre for many reasons. He does not have an independent political base, his own personality is seldom combative, and his geniality seems oddly out of place in the politics of hardball. But he has some assets that he ought to exploit. First, one assumes that, for the moment at least, he enjoys Sonia Gandhi’s support. This should be used to create more discipline, at least within the Congress. Both the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi should at least give the appearance that they are setting the agenda, and not their loud-mouthed colleagues.
Second, although Singh has no obvious political base of his own, his presence gives this government great legitimacy and makes it a locus of hope. His reputation for integrity is a great asset for his party. Most people believe that, unlike many of his cabinet colleagues, he will not jeopardize the country’s future for venial politics. He is the embodiment of the hope that this government will make a new start and depart from politics as usual. The prime minister will have to learn the art of converting legitimacy into some real power.
But he has to learn to make political use of these assets. This will require, first of all, an ability to set the agenda and be in the news. There is an impression gaining ground, somewhat unfairly, that important issues are being settled in every place but the prime minister’s office. This impression has to be corrected. This will require that the prime minister be both more visible and assertive in public on core matters. He will have to use the public sphere to make his case and enhance his authority. Although he cannot use it too often, any threat of resignation on his part will be an embarrassment for this government. He ought to use this authority to make at least some of the ground rules and core principles of this government clear. Politics, as Machiavelli argued, cannot be conducted on respect alone, for respect that is not assertive is liable to be the object of contempt very soon.
There is some truth to the thought that his humility and self-effacing qualities are an asset in this political climate. He can run coalition politics precisely because he is so low key, and out of the picture so often. He can let others take credit for just about anything. But there is a real risk that he may acquire the image of a man who can too easily be ignored, and who is not a central player in current political equations. It is true that he is operating under severe political constraints, but in the final analysis, his constraints will not be an adequate excuse for his invisibility in the public sphere. This is especially in light of the fact that he is not being upstaged by Sonia Gandhi, but by half-a-dozen lesser leaders. It is early days in the government, and he still stands a chance of using his office to stamp his authority.
As extraordinary a man as Singh is, he was not born into political greatness, he did not achieve political greatness, but now that it is being thrust upon him, he ought to rise to the occasion. He needs to be the more assertively visible face of this government. Politics, Cicero said, requires a disposition that is uninhibited. It is time for the prime minister to shed his inhibitions and fill the growing leadership vacuum at the top.