Once upon a time, India was inclined to replicate the institutions of Westminster. Tragically, one of Albion’s great parliamentary traditions that failed to be transplanted into the dust bowl of Delhi was Prime Minister’s Questions, the weekly ritual that compels the head of the executive to respond to questions, both legitimate and plain insolent. Although known to occasionally degenerate into a puerile, public-school spat, the greatest virtue of PMQ is to hold the prime minister accountable for the totality of his government. The fear of being embarrassed or outsmarted on the floor of the House by either a sharp-tongued Leader of the Opposition or a persistent backbencher has forced British prime ministers to be attentive to the quality of governance and the integrity of ministers. The PMQ has made it impossible for a prime minister to duck issues: he is obliged to explain and justify.
In recent months, India is experiencing a system of governance that appears to have absolved the prime minister of any responsibility for either the actions of his cabinet colleagues or wider developments. His role is increasingly becoming ceremonial.
Take two issues that have agitated the country over the past seven days. First, there was the meeting of the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in Islamabad, a summit that concluded in bitterness and acrimony. Restoring normal relations between the two countries has been one of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s most significant initiatives, comparable to his gritty perusal of the Indo-US nuclear accord in the first term of the United Progressive Alliance government. It is well known that Singh has persevered with trying to overcome the legacy of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, despite the known scepticism of many of his cabinet colleagues. Under the circumstances, a prime ministerial intervention pointing to a possible way out of the stalemate and near-breakdown of talks was entirely in order. Instead, what the nation got was Singh’s complete silence and an ugly spat between the home and external affairs ministries.
Secondly, there was the horrific train accident involving the Uttar Banga Express in the early hours of last Monday that led to the deaths of more than 60 passengers. The collision, coming in the wake of a string of accidents that indicated dangerous levels of negligence and incompetence, has led to a clamour for the resignation of the railways minister, Mamata Banerjee. It has been claimed, and perhaps with good reason, that Banerjee is too preoccupied with preparations for next year’s assembly elections in West Bengal. Her commitment to the job of looking after the ailing railway network and her competence have been called into question by both the Opposition and large sections of civil society.
These are grave charges and have a bearing on the reputation of the entire UPA, not to mention India’s most important mass transport system. A word of assurance from the prime minister that widespread public concerns will be speedily addressed would have helped to lower the political temperature. Once again, there was not a whisper from Race Course Road. Indeed, Singh has made his position so aloof that the list of press releases from the website of the prime minister’s office does not contain even a ritualistic message of condolence. The man who thought it important to congratulate Saina Nehwal on winning the Indonesian Open badminton championship and the Indian cricket team for its success in the Asia Cup had not a word of comfort for the relatives of the 60 or so passengers who died so cruelly.
In taking note of the prime minister’s hands-off approach, the idea is not to charge him with either dereliction of duty or callousness. It can hardly be the case that Singh, who has access to the best channels of information the country can provide, doesn’t have informed views on grave matters of state. His silence on most matters — barring the economy and aspects of foreign policy — isn’t born of indifference or even a style of management centred on total delegation of responsibility to individual ministers. It is wilful and may well be based on the calculation that a large measure of detachment is the only realistic way to continue at the crease.
The assumption may well be correct, although it ignores the large dose of moral authority he possesses. However, in making a fetish of his relative lack of political authority in a dispensation where the final word rests with the UPA chairperson, the prime minister has encouraged confusion over policy and a state of drift that would have been politically damaging had the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party been a purposeful entity. Singh’s inability to take the final call on major issues of governance is costing the country dearly and negating some of the optimism surrounding India’s emergence as a global player of consequence.
The approach to the heightened Maoist insurgency is a case in point. The UPA government, it would seem, is caught between two sharply divergent approaches — one articulated by the home minister, P. Chidambaram, and the other by the Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, whose actions make it appear that he has the tacit support of Sonia Gandhi. The issue is not so much which approach is more desirable, a conclusion that depends on perceptions of end goals. What is alarming is that the confusion over policy has led to operational disarray and given the Maoists an invaluable window of opportunity.
The inconsistencies of counter-insurgency mirror the UPA government’s inability to strike a workable balance between conflicting economic goals. The finance minister, for example, has made reduction of the fiscal deficit one of his priorities. The removal of subsidies on petrol and their reduction from the controlled prices of diesel, kerosene and cooking-gas cylinders followed this logic. Yet, simultaneously, the Sonia-Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, comprising activists of various descriptions, has deemed that the right-to-food programme be made far more ambitious than was initially envisaged by the government. If one arm of the regime is stressing fiscal discipline, another arm has instructed the government to ease the purse strings of welfare. The prime minister’s instincts are in favour of what the finance ministry advocates, but he is unable to tame the political assault of those who feel that the state must play the part of Lady Bountiful.
Managing contradictions is said to be the leitmotif of a coalition government, especially one where some of the partners have a narrow cash-and-carry priority. For six years, Singh has successfully meandered his way through uncharted territory, reaping the windfall of an entrepreneurial revolution that has somehow deftly negotiated state inefficiency. However, the system is creaking under the pulls and pressures of political expediency and could well burst at the seams. The upgradation of infrastructure has been mired in corruption and left the country underwhelmed; the Commonwealth Games, which drained the exchequer of nearly Rs 30,000 crore of much-needed resources, is caught up in scandal and mismanagement; and inflation is making the otherwise-contented middle classes restive.
There is a need for some purposeful leadership that plays more than a symbolic role. Unfortunately, Singh never assumed or was never allowed to assume that role. A cynical Congress, it would seem, is content enjoying the state of drift till a 40-something leader who has never sullied his hands in the affairs of state comes to the rescue. At this rate, however, when Rahul Gandhi steps into his ancestral shoes, as the Congress has deemed he must, he will need a crash course in disaster management.