The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Touch of politics from ‘apolitical’ PM

New Delhi, June 10: Less than a month ago, a section in the Congress had started a campaign to bring in a “political” Prime Minister in place of Manmohan Singh.

On the face of it, the Ajit Jogi-led signature campaign urging party chief Sonia Gandhi to take over looked like another show of sycophancy. But a deeper look revealed it was a manifestation of long-standing grievances some party members had against Singh.

One, he was “inaccessible” to them but was always available to leaders of the UPA allies; two, he was too “reforms-oriented” and not “mindful” of the aspirations of the aam aadmi; three, his foreign policy had a pronounced “pro-US” tilt and, four, he had no clear views on subjects like reservation in education and the private sector.

The decision to raise the prices of petrol and diesel has added fuel to the discontent. The government’s argument that it had no option because of the escalating global price of oil and the uncertainty in West Asia has not cut any ice with many Congress leaders.

“Are we to offer esoteric explanations to the rural voters of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh'” asked a senior party functionary.

The mood in the Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road was palpably anti-Singh as leaders recalled how the reforms agenda he implemented as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister had cost the Congress dear in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections.

The atmosphere in South Block, the seat of the Prime Minister’s Office, was markedly different.

The word from there was the prices would not be reduced, forget a “rollback”. As 24 Akbar Road was abuzz with reports of how Sonia “covertly” backed the Congress’s opposition to the hike and a Sonia-Singh “face-off” was imminent, the Prime Minister stood his ground.

He would rather quit than go back on the decision, PMO sources said. Not that Singh wants to make it a prestige issue, but he feels it is time to complete his government’s unfinished agenda.

These include pushing through the 5 to 10 per cent divestment proposal in the Neyveli Lignite Corporation despite the Left’s opposition and acting on the Pension Fund Regulatory Development Authority bill that seeks to reform the way pensions are handled.

“The next two years are crucial for implementing the so-called unpopular decisions because after 2008, it will be time to prepare for the next Lok Sabha election,” said a source.

The view in South Block is that the Prime Minister has always been forced to go on the “back foot”, take the rap from the Left and, of late, the Congress whenever he uttered the word “reforms”. Yet, when it came to launching a social sector initiative, he had to share the honours.

The sources said the problem arises from the existing arrangement that Singh would “govern” and Sonia would manage politics.

Governance, they said, connoted a degree of divorce from politics, so whatever Singh did implied it was “apolitical”.

However, now that the Congress has voted for the government’s proposal to states to offer sales tax relief and absorb some of the negative fallout of the oil price hike, the sources acknowledged that the economist was a politician as well.

For the moment, the party seems to believe that the Prime Minister has taken away some of the heat his decision had generated.

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