The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, does not have too many friends and supporters these days. But even his critics must be feeling sorry for him after what he has had to endure in the last few days. It cannot be easy for Mr Singh as prime minister to be unsure about who is actually the leader of the Congress. Before he embarked on his trip to the United States of America, he was certain that the Congress was led by Sonia Gandhi, who had selected him for the top job some nine years ago. But on his return, he encountered a dramatic change. An ordinance that his government had passed with the approval of Ms Gandhi and the Congress core group had been described as a piece of nonsense by Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of the Congress. And this had resulted in a flurry of activity to have the ordinance withdrawn. Suddenly, it must have appeared to the prime minister — as indeed it did to many others — that it was Mr Gandhi and not Ms Gandhi who was calling the shots within the Congress.
In one outburst, Mr Gandhi had undermined the position and authority of the prime minister and his cabinet as well as those of the Congress president and the party’s core group. Mr Singh did not need an Opposition leader to undermine his authority. His own party’s vice-president did it much better and more effectively. Since then, thanks to his mother, Mr Gandhi has recognized that his language had been rather intemperate, and he has also met Mr Singh. No one, save a fly on the wall, knows what transpired at that meeting. In public, Mr Gandhi has reiterated that he has the utmost respect for Mr Singh. The latter, like many others in India, must be wondering what this respect amounts to; he cannot be blamed if he harbours doubts in his mind about the sincerity of Mr Gandhi’s expression of respect. What must appear striking to Mr Singh is the contrast in the behaviour of the Congress president and that of the vice-president, between mother and son. Ms Gandhi, ever since she made Mr Singh prime minister, has been grace personified. She never questioned his authority and his decisions and when/if she had differences with him, she settled them quietly over one to one meetings. This is one principal reason why this relationship has worked. Having relinquished the top job, she has never been the overbearing party president. There can be no doubt that Mr Singh is deeply appreciative of this.
It is no one’s argument that Mr Singh is the perfect or ideal prime minister. What, however, should not be ignored is that he is the prime minister of India. Therefore, he deserves to be treated as one, even when he errs. Mr Singh, being a scholar, is probably aware that he is witnessing a transition within the Congress. It is a transition, the outcome of which has been long foretold, but that does not make it easy. Mr Singh has seen too much to be impetuous. That is the privilege of having power without responsibility.