|Manmohan Singh addresses a conference in New Delhi on Friday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
New Delhi, Sept. 14: The Prime Minister has resurrected the “Singh is King” moment of 2008 by unveiling the boldest package of decisions in the UPA’s second tenure.
Opponents and admirers alike are reading a signal from Manmohan Singh to those writing his political epitaph that he would not forsake his convictions despite being hemmed in by sceptical allies, a belligerent Opposition and an indifferent Congress.
“It was his Final Decisive Intervention,” a source close to Singh stressed, punning on the acronym FDI.
At a time even industry had begun to articulate doubts over the Prime Minister’s ability to steer the country back on the path of reforms that he had ushered in 1991, Singh bit bullet after bullet in the space of 24 hours.
Sources “privy” to Singh’s thinking said his decision-making trajectory ran on pretty much the same course as it did before he clinched the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. That epochal move came a year before the 2009 elections in perilous circumstances that saw the Left exiting the UPA in a huff. The Samajwadi Party entered in its place and guaranteed that Singh emerged trumps with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s backing.
With the next Lok Sabha elections due in 2014, sources said Singh figured out that this was the “most opportune moment” to flag “non-populist” and, therefore, not necessarily popular, decisions.
Political expediency demands that the penultimate election year is dominated by moves targeted at the “aam aadmi” that the UPA hopes will be fulfilled by the envisaged laws on food security, land acquisition and the universalisation of the job guarantee scheme.
However, these sources also stressed that political considerations alone did not power Singh’s announcements. They claimed he was “at his best” when pushed to the wall and that was where he had found himself for the past few months.
Maintaining that he was unlikely to run for Prime Minister again, they said his imperative was to “bequeath a legacy that would endear and not repel him to future generations”.
|Singh, then the finance minister, arrives to present the 1991-92 Union
budget — his first
“He certainly doesn’t want history to remember him with the adjectives used for him these days like indecisive, blind to his ministers’ follies, insensitive, and most of all, as someone who ran the worst government,” a source said.
If India Inc feasted on his policy bounties since the 1990s, it turned restive once the warts were exposed in 2G and he became nearly everyone’s whipping boy.
The urban middle-classes that similarly profited from the ATM and call-centre culture fostered by cross-country collaborations appeared to have done a somersault after the Anna Hazare campaign against corruption and lampooned Singh as a blight on the nation.
His woes were compounded by the ratings warnings from global agencies. An over-interventionist CAG and sharp judicial observations on the scandals that tumbled out in quick succession culminated in what a Singh aide described as his “worst nightmare”: an adverse international press.
As his plight worsened, he was not exactly helped by his party, the Congress. Its conspiracy theorists readied to give him a send-off by the end of the year, maintaining that he had become a “liability”, particularly after the coal scandal that sought to implicate him directly.
It was Sonia and Rahul’s steadfast backing that kept Singh afloat. Each time, a statement in solidarity or in his defence led to a chorus of support from the Congress.
As a strategy, Congress sources hoped the spin-offs of FDI would help neutralise the adversities arising from the coal scandal and the diesel price hike.
The move has sharpened the BJP’s dilemma over reforms. Although it announced a sit-in on Saturday against the price rise and retail FDI decision, the public responses either came from the second-rungers like Balbir Punj or Rajnath Singh, positioned as a “home-spun” leader.
Those leaders who seriously ruminated over the long-term ramifications of “impulsively” opposing reforms and divestments — given the fact that Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the government its first independent disinvestment ministry — weren’t sure if “opposition for opposition’s sake” would help politically.
“We took a leaf out of the nuclear deal days. Our stand didn’t help us because it put the middle-classes off,” conceded a BJP leader, adding that the retail outlets could generate employment and help farmers in the long run.
Since the Centre has put the ball in the states’ courts on FDI in retail, BJP sources also conceded that Narendra Modi — who flaunts his two-yearly “Vibrant Gujarat” investors’ jamboree in shining letters on his CV — would embrace chains like Tesco, if not for anything other than Gujarat’s embryonic connections with an ever-spreading diaspora.
Congress sources privately acknowledged it was “too early” to carry out a cost-benefit analysis but conceded to being “shocked” by Singh’s propensity to pull a rabbit out at unexpected moments.