| Balancing game
It is precisely because Manmohan Singh is such a gentleman that he faces a more daunting challenge than any predecessor. Keeping together a disparate coalition, even one that is dependent on Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s mercies, may be child’s play compared to the task of striking the right relationship with Sonia Gandhi and her family. As Uttar Pradesh shows, the two challenges can merge into one.
Singh’s management is of national concern because of the hopes that are pinned on the United Progressive Alliance’s survival. The UPA has many drawbacks, but it does hold out the prospect of a respite from the rabid communalism that allowed the brutal Stain- es murder, which no one mentions nowadays, and the Gujarat carnage. It has also given the country the rare asset of a head of government whose integrity is untouched by any breath of scandal. The monster of corruption, its tentacles deep into every aspect of life, needs such an example of probity at the top.
There is no obvious successor if Singh cannot cope with the task of reconciling contrary interests and placating vanities. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s simpler mandate was to coax or coerce all the National Democratic Alliance constituents into the Bharatiya Janata Party mould. The unspoken threat was that if they didn’t like it, they could quit. Singh, in contrast, must tailor the UPA to the whims and fancies of members and supporters. If they don’t agree, it’s the UPA that must quit. In this delicate balancing game, the Gandhi family, with its blend of thwarted and budding ambition, is a more significant factor than the “tainted” ministers who provoked a controversy in the Lok Sabha’s inaugural session last week.
Singh is not the first prime minister to be confronted with another centre of power. Jawaharlal Nehru may have been his own man, but Lal Bahadur Shastri’s position was not unassailable. Indira Gandhi had to contend with what was called the syndicate. During their short tenures, both Charan Singh and Chandra Shekhar had to constantly look over the shoulder at the Congress chief (mother and son) who could — and did — pull the rug from under them. Vajpayee’s deputy was seen as the NDA regime’s éminence grise.
One crucial difference with these earlier incumbents is that Singh has a reputation to protect. Another is that his own position is not impregnable. The aggressive and intrusive nature of today’s media is yet a third complication. Little happens behind the scenes nowadays; everything is on screen. We know each time Singh goes to 10 Janpath; we are all made aware of a new minister who heaps lavish thanks on Sonia Gandhi for appreciating his talents with nary a kind word to spare for the prime minister who is supposed to have appointed him and under whom he must serve.
A fourth difference is that previous prime ministers were professional politicians. Compromises and concessions were in the day’s work for them. People expected them to be calculating, to undercut rivals, build up supporters and consolidate their own position. If anything, Indira Gandhi was admired for her skill in not only biting but also chopping off the hand that had fed her. Precisely because of his record, the public expects a higher standard from Singh. He is the victim of his own integrity. Customary political wheeling and dealing would be regarded as out of character.
Fifth and most crucial is what might be called the in-house competition he must live with. The two other extra-constitutional centres of power — Sanjay Gandhi before and during the Emergency and Jayaprakash Narayan during Morarji Desai’s stint — did not exercise quite the same degree of formal authority. They did not hold important political offices that legitimize power. They were not seen to have voluntarily relinquished office. Whatever the untold truth of her abdication, Sonia Gandhi’s own version of the “inner voice” profoundly impressed the multitude. The self-proclaimed sacrifice has immeasurably strengthened her hold on the levers of power. Singh cannot publicly defy her. But if he is seen to be deferring to her too much, the public will begin to question his credentials for leading the world’s largest democracy. An Indian prime minister is not primus inter pares, first among equals. He is the undisputed leader, second in the land only to the president. However modest and retiring the man might be — and there is no question that Singh is the most self-effacing of functionaries — the job demands that he should not appear to abase himself before anybody.
There are many crucial matters, too, in which he alone can uphold the primacy of national interest above the pre- dilections of individuals. How should India respond to a request for troops in Iraq' What is the common ground between defence and foreign policy so far as China and Pakistan are concerned' What should India’s proper relationship be with the United States of America' To what extent should the left’s sensibilities be considered in formulating economic policy' Singh is no stranger to the implicit conflict between politics and pragmatism. Never far from the surface, it emerged when P.V. Narasimha Rao promised grain subsidies despite a commitment to free-market reform. One suspects that Sonia Gandhi, being innocent of administration, might also think in terms of populist measures that are expected to increase her popularity with politicians and their constituencies. If that happens, will the economist in Singh be able to put his foot down' One hopes that matters will never come to this pass. One hopes, too, that some awareness of her limitations will oblige Sonia Gandhi to stand aloof from governance. But even if she refrains from direct interference, her moves to overhaul the party organization and strengthen alliances are bound to have a spill-over effect. More to the point, her children clearly see themselves as anointed heirs to a family guddee.
There is a feeling already that talented young Congress members of parliament are denied their due so that no one outshines Rahul Gandhi. Instead of being brushed under the carpet, his outburst against the Samajwadi Party just before voting seems likely to set the Central government’s agenda in Uttar Pradesh. Any “politics of collision” would be bad enough at this stage; what is worse is the suspicion that toppling Mulayam Singh Yadav is not government policy. There hasn’t been a squeak out of Shivraj Patil, who happens to be Union home minister. Yes, there are crass people in this country who would go berserk with joy if Singh were to step down in favour of Rahul Gandhi. That, too, has been mooted. Rahul Gandhi may have sterling qualities of heart and mind, but his appeal now is based on youth, Eurasian good looks, a hallowed name, and the martyr’s halo of both parents. That is the stuff of which pop idols are made, not serious government leaders who have to manage growth with a human face to lead a billion people out of the slough of poverty.
Manmohan Singh can do that if he is given the chance. If his government is not forced to dance to the tune of a fledgling MP who hasn’t even made his maiden speech yet and who has done nothing so far even to be taken seriously. He may mature as his father did, and one day justify Amethi’s confidence. Meanwhile, he should leave governance to his betters. Sonia Gandhi’s best act so far has been to pass on the prime ministership to Singh. Let her not nullify that wisdom by either herself clinging too obviously to power or encouraging presumptuousness in her children. Either would be disastrous for the Congress revival. By demeaning the country’s highest political office, it would also make it impossible for Singh to survive with dignity. The nation has great expectations of its new prime minister.