New Delhi, Aug. 28: Manmohan Singh is nursing a headache as he steps into his 100th day as Prime Minster but before he wrapped up the 99th came a political balm – if at all he needed one – from an unlikely source.
The PMO announced at noon that Singh is indisposed with viral fever and has been advised rest for two days by his personal physician. In the evening, Opposition leader L.K. Advani, who was part of the delegation that had alleged three days ago that the Prime Minister had “thrown” an Opposition memorandum, told a television channel that the issue has “ended”.
The NDA would not rake up the controversy again, George Fernandes added in Dhanbad, saying Singh had clarified his stand to Advani and Jaswant Singh.
The indisposition forced the cancellation of the Prime Minister’s appointments and public engagements for today and tomorrow. Otherwise, Singh might have heard the same soothing words from his predecessor himself.
Had Singh not been ill, he would have been the chief guest at the birth centenary function of media baron Ramnath Goenka today. Singh’s predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the guest of honour.
This would have been the first occasion when the two would have met after the paralysis in Parliament. Being the quintessential gentleman politician, it is unlikely that Singh would have betrayed any trace of bitterness at being labelled “impolite” by Vajpayee.
But those close to the Prime Minister said he has no intention of making another effort to break the impasse with the NDA in the three-month interregnum between now and the winter session and would rather let Advani and colleagues plan their next move.
The sources made it clear that there was no way he would ask the “tainted” ministers in his cabinet to go because he realises that minus the RJD, to which they belong, the Congress could not continue in power.
Singh’s “snub” to Advani, Fernandes and the others in the NDA delegation was applauded in the Congress and outside, but there was also a feeling in the political establishment that such an open expression of annoyance was not the response expected of a hard-nosed politician. If politics is the craft of indulging in guile and concealing it, Singh is not its best practitioner.
A hundred days into the office of Prime Minister, the assessment across the political spectrum, Right and Left included, was that Singh is honest, well-intentioned, diligent and fair but “not political enough”. Apparently, the Prime Minister seems to have left political management to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and plunged himself into governance.
But a CPM member of Parliament asked: “Where does governance end and politics begin' Is inflation management or containing communalism a matter of politics or governance' Obviously, it is both.”
A comparison of the Prime Minister’s Offices presided over by Vajpayee and Singh will give the clues to the differences in their styles of governance and, perhaps, explain why the coalition led by the BJP leader was able to complete its term.
Vajpayee hardly attended his office in South Block, preferring to sign files at home. Brajesh Mishra was his man for all seasons and reasons: policy-maker, administrator and politician.
In marked contrast, when Manipur burned, no one in Singh’s PMO had a clear idea of what was happening on the ground. South Block’s perception was that changing the governor and the chief secretary would solve the problem. When the situation remained intractable, the response was: “In India, somehow problems sort themselves out.”
The sources admitted that Singh’s comfort level was the highest with the “urbane” members of his cabinet like S. Jaipal Reddy, Dayanidhi Maran, P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad. The Prime Minister has been reportedly “formal” with Laloo Prasad but has taken care to acknowledge the Bihar strongman’s importance to the extent of placing him fourth in the pecking order of ministers after himself, Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh.
On the positive side, even Singh’s detractors admit that South Block — which was “dead” in Vajpayee’s time — was humming with activity and like the disciplined Prime Minister, every official had his nose to the grindstone.
Governance and fiscal management being his priorities, Singh got into the act when inflation began spinning out of control, put together a crack team and monitored the situation everyday.
The PMO was working hard on reforms in every aspect of governance — bureaucracy, intelligence gathering and policing.
Notwithstanding Arjun Singh’s “detoxification” agenda, the Prime Minister’s style was non-partisan. His choice of officials showed his only criterion was professional excellence. By this yardstick, he appointed Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Shyam Saran, retained those from the Vajpayee era like Ajit Doval and Pawan Kapur and inducted a principal secretary of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Javed Usmani, as a joint secretary in the PMO.
The other striking departure from the Vajpayee regime was the practice of austerity by Singh, whether it was his refusal to use the BMWs imported by the NDA government when India was “shining” or to have elaborate repast in official meetings.
Personally unimpeachable, resilient under duress (tolerating the “tainted” ministers), still uneasy with politics, keen to tone down his “pro-reforms” image and be seen as a friend of the poor and committed to governance, Singh, some feel, will come of age the day he learns to blend politics with administration.