Indian culture not having much time for understatement or self-deprecation, Manmohan Singh's six-out-of-ten self-appraisal at the end of his first year in office has been received with predictable scorn. Even the inadvertent leak is seen as proof of United Progressive Alliance bungling. The crass response is that if the prime minister himself does not admit to being more than 60 per cent successful, his performance must actually have fallen way below the pass mark.
Yet, these last 12 months have been marked by a calmness that makes a welcome contrast after the Bharatiya Janata Party's theatrics. The tacit public defence of criminal orgies like the Staines murder and the Gujarat carnage and the increasing polarization of society not only threatened to push Muslims into a defensive corner but also encouraged a siege mentality among Hindus. Only a return to the tranquillity of the multi-party equilibrium can enable us to reach out for the global aspirations that economic growth have made possible. No prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru has enjoyed such a high reputation at home for integrity and abroad for statesmanship.
Sadly, the National Democratic Alliance's withdrawal from parliament and sneers about a 'weak' and 'invisible' prime minister have given a jolt to the process of national reconciliation. Barring this motivated recalcitrance, Manmohan Singh has been able to avoid populism and place reconstruction way above the sectarian causes that most readily animate mobs.
He may not even be aware of the soothing effect of his style and personality on the quality of life because of his addiction to economic indicators. But his obvious frustration ' evident from the modest marks he gives himself ' was inevitable precisely because the goals he set for the UPA were so lofty. Another leader would have preened himself on what has been achieved so far; he underlines only what has not, blaming his 'limited mandate' for impediments to the reform agenda.
This could perhaps be interpreted as oblique criticism of the political stranglehold of the Congress boss, but despite suspicions about her national advisory council, there is little evidence so far of Sonia Gandhi obstructing governance or interfering in policy decisions. Of course, she is preparing the ground for an imminent ministerial reshuffle to give the crown prince of Indian politics a foot in the door of power. But that is another story, albeit one that exposes the frailty of the democratic ethic in a nation that prides itself on being the world's largest democracy. For now, the prime minister focuses only on growth and holds his allies on the left responsible for impeding labour reforms and restructuring of subsidies.
This sense of betrayal must have been heightened when Jyoti Basu, whom Manmohan Singh once called the best prime minister India had never had, churlishly refused to participate in tomorrow's anniversary celebrations. Blest with none of the philosophical calm that is supposed to come with old age, especially after a long and successful innings, West Bengal's nonagenarian leader is apparently still sulking at having been passed by for the top job in the country. Not that Basu is the only repository of undying ambition. Within the Congress ranks, Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and Arjun Singh all have an eye on 7 Race Course Road. Congressmen are as faction-ridden as ever, as inclined to woo the president in hopes of upstaging a prime minister who still has not bothered to use patronage to carve out his own lobby. Even the prime minister's office has shed some of its power though it is just as well that it does exert considerable influence nowadays on shaping foreign policy.
That irks some Congress ministers, but the conspirators and intriguers are well aware that they cannot challenge Manmohan Singh's mature leadership except in cahoots with 10 Janpath whose Italian-born occupant must be equally well aware that her fortunes are tied up with her nominee's. Sonia Gandhi's present influence depends to a large extent on her ostentatious act of sacrifice in May last year when she thrust the crown on a man of unimpeachable integrity and sound principles but little taste for, or experience of, politics. Any palace coup to remove or further weaken Manmohan Singh would undoubtedly redound on her position unless the successor is also a person of national stature. In that case, the new incumbent will do to her what her mother-in-law did to the Syndicate. Sonia Gandhi has studied well the labyrinthine workings of Indian politics.
Not so the prime minister. A more earthy or political animal would have drawn comfort ' as Sonia Gandhi does with apparent relish ' from the mess in which the NDA finds itself with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh calling for the BJP's two national leaders to step down, factional fighting in several states, speculation about allies like the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal, and corruption charges involving luminaries who were once regarded as the BJP's most selfless crusaders. It is Manmohan Singh's loss and the nation's gain that these games hold no attraction for him.
Two concerns loom on his immediate horizon. The first is the need to consolidate a sound and dignified relationship with the United States of America when he visits George W. Bush in July. The second is a visit by Singapore's new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, to sign an economic treaty that will allow India further to interact with the prosperous countries of south-east and east Asia. The likes of Laloo Prasad Yadav seem not to impinge at all on these strategic plans though the plans will come to naught without the support of his 24 Rashtriya Janata Dal MPs. It's the 64 left MPs who seem to worry the prime minister more, possibly because he is aware that Laloo and his flock know only too well which side of their bread is buttered. They will not rock a government that sustains them. Prakash Karat and his cohorts might as they are carried away on a tide of heady rhetoric about struggles and movements to chastise a government that 'erodes national sovereignty' (or) succumbs to the pressures of international finance capital.'
Even if they don't actually pull the rug out from under the UPA, they will continue to thwart reform. Manmohan Singh pleads in vain that labour reform and further liberalization of investment 'can generate even more employment'. The left is not looking for long-term uplift or a higher growth rate. Its interest is solely in its captive constituency of trade unions. Fighting for their political survival, Karat and Company know that to make more concessions to liberalization will mean signing their death warrant. The prime minister is not justified in expecting the left to share his vision of the national interest. A left with its back to the wall will resist change all the more vehemently.
Within these restrictions, the UPA has struck a neat balance between free market economics and concern for the poor, between the private sector and the lowest common denominator among voters. It is spending more on jobs in the countryside, health, education and pensions. It has not done enough perhaps to build a sound infrastructure without which investment will remain disappointing. Beyond economics, some might blame the UPA for condoning criminals in public life, not empowering women and not rationalizing reservations. Governance is always a compromise, and more so in this instance with a prime minister hampered not only by his limited mandate but also by the static mindset of which he also complains, still using the analogy of fighting the East India Company.
Given conditions and circumstances, one is reminded of Richard Nixon's dictum that the wonder is not that India is governed badly but that it is governed at all. Under Manmohan Singh, India is at least, and at last, limping back to the consensus normalcy of the Nehruvian era.