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LOOKING THREE WAYS
- The duet of prime minister and party president is not working

On May 23, the president of the Congress, Sonia Gandhi, laid the foundation stone of a bridge being built across the river Ravi, linking Jammu and Kashmir with Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Ten days later, she was in Rajasthan, inaugurating the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. For both trips she had to travel far from her place of residence, which — given her position — would have involved careful planning beforehand, as well as deployments of security personnel along the route to her destination.

In the last week of May, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was in Addis Ababa speaking at a summit which brought together African nations with whom India wished to cultivate closer ties. The bandobast for this visit must also have been extensive — as it always is for trips abroad by the country’s prime minister. Given Singh’s age, and his indifferent health, the flight to and from Addis Ababa must also have involved a certain physical and mental strain, for which he had to prepare himself.

Infrastructure and rural livelihoods are crucial to India’s economic growth. A more visible footprint in Africa is a core element in India’s foreign policy. These initiatives are necessary, and important, although one might ask why Sonia Gandhi should always be invited to inaugurate flagship programmes that are launched under the auspices not of the Congress, but of the government of India.

But that — at least for the purposes of this column — is a minor criticism. The more important point is this — why were both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi so silent about the happenings in New Delhi in the first week of June? Why did they not speak or act before or after the meeting of the four cabinet ministers with Baba Ramdev at the Delhi airport, before or during the fast announced by him, or immediately after the police evicted him and his supporters from the Ramlila Maidan?

My answer to these questions is as follows. Although Manmohan Singh is, in theory, head of government, he has absolute authority only in one sphere — foreign policy — and substantial authority in one other sphere — namely, economic policy. On matters such as relations between India and Pakistan, and the government’s position on nuclear proliferation, Sonia Gandhi has no wish to shape the government’s policy. We do have a foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, but on these questions he too is happy to defer to the judgment of the prime minister.

Before he joined the Congress, Singh was an economist, not a diplomat. His first (and most successful) assignment in politics was as finance minister of the government of India from 1991 to 1996. However, as prime minister, while he has complete autonomy in foreign policy, in the realm of economics he shares his powers with the finance minister and the Congress president. When it comes to macroeconomic issues such as trade policy and monetary policy, Singh has a substantial say. When it comes to welfarist measures such as food distribution and fertilizer subsidies, he has to often bow to the wishes (and political compulsions) of the party president.

As for Sonia Gandhi, it is now increasingly apparent that her public statements and public appearances are directly linked to their presumed electoral benefits. If she can appear as one who, by the grace of her personality, helps the citizens of India live a more stable and economically secure life, then she will speak and show herself in public. Thus, a scheme that puts money or foodgrains in the hands of the poor will be inaugurated by her, but so also a bridge or airport which facilitates travel for the middle class and the affluent.

Despite his title, domestic politics is largely excluded from Manmohan Singh’s portfolio. How to manage social conflict, how to renew our education system, how to put more doctors in rural areas — these concerns are naturally the preserve of specific ministries. Normally, a prime minister would at least exercise overall authority, guiding ministers along preferred paths or warning them against faulty ones. But this oversight is rarely, if ever, exercised, by Singh.

It is widely believed that in both the first and the second UPA governments, the Congress president had a major, perhaps a decisive, say in the composition of the cabinet — in who was chosen and how the portfolios were allocated. Afterwards, she continued to exercise some oversight, even if this be not substantial. At any rate, most ministers are more worried about her censure than that of the prime minister, and more appreciative of her praise as well.

In both party and government, Sonia Gandhi thus enjoys more authority than the prime minister. However, she exercises this authority in public only when it is likely to bring her sympathy and support from the electorate. All governments have, however, to sometimes make decisions that are controversial and unpopular. When these decisions are made, Sonia Gandhi has nothing to say.

The prime minister’s silence on matters of major importance is a consequence of his greatly attenuated powers. The Congress president’s silence is selective — she speaks or appears when she can be seen as a fairy godmother, but stays in seclusion if the short-term consequences of a particular policy are anger and hostility among sections of the population. Then, in the absence of prime minister and party president, it is left to senior ministers and party functionaries — such as Kapil Sibal and Digvijay Singh — to make statements that have a shelf-life of roughly 24 hours, before they are denied or rebutted by some other minister or party functionary.

Two words best capture the reaction of the current government to crises such as the Telangana, 2G, and Hazare/Ramdev affairs. These are confusion and inaction. Both are a consequence of a near-total abdication of responsibility, when it comes to domestic policies, by Manmohan Singh, and a selective abdication by Sonia Gandhi. Hailed by many commentators when it first presented itself in 2004, this jugalbandi of a prime minister with status but no authority and a party president with authority but no formal position in government has been exposed as unworkable. One wishes the prime minister had, at least in 2009, the courage to stand for a Lok Sabha seat — which he would have won, permitting him to enjoy the real respect of his colleagues in government. Or else the party president should, at least in 2009, have become prime minister herself, to take on the responsibility directly, to thus expose herself to public criticism as well as public praise.

By the standards of Indian politics both Singh and Ms Gandhi are decent people. Neither is sectarian, and both, I believe, have a genuine concern for the welfare of their compatriots. But the weakness of the one and the insecurity of the other have combined to produce an administration that is inept and incompetent beyond words. This has deeply damaged the credibility of Singh and Ms Gandhi, the credibility of the Congress, and the credibility of the republic of India itself.

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