The Professor’s Empty Class

Illustration : Anand Naorem

REGARDLESS OF what the Electronic Voting Machines reveal on May 16, Manmohan Singh will have the satisfaction of knowing that he now has permanent membership of a select club of Prime Ministers who have completed a full term in office. That, in itself, is no small achievement. When he was anointed Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi’s ‘inner voice’ told her to stay away from Race Course Road, few imagined that the UPA Government would last its full term and that Manmohan would be at the helm for the entire duration. Indeed, in the early months of the government, some in the BJP attached great store on an astrological prophecy that the government would collapse by September-October 2004. Leader of the Opposition LK Advani also flaunted a Deutsche Bank report which suggested that the government would barely endure for more than a year.

Any assessment of Manmohan’s stint must proceed with the recognition that India’s most non-political Prime Minister succeeded in the most politically daunting challenge before him: he carried his bat through the entire innings. It is conceivable that he succeeded precisely because he never deviated from his contrived unconcern with day-to-day politics. He was careful to never pose any threat to the politicians, and they, in turn, were happy to leave him undisturbed. Had he developed political ambitions midway — and it is so easy to acquire delusions of grandeur in a rarefied environment — he would undoubtedly have been a member of the other club of Prime Ministers who left prematurely.

The unique circumstances of Manmohan’s appointment and tenure should argue against describing his five-year term as the “Singh era”. The Prime Minister, as a British magazine shrewdly observed midway through his innings, was in office but not in power. Manmohan never had full power or authority to begin with. The controlling levers were always held by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi — she had an overriding veto — and individual Cabinet ministers were accorded an unprecedented degree of autonomy. The all-important Prime Minister’s Office was reduced to a cipher, its role limited to periodic expressions of unhappiness. Even the appointment of key functionaries, hitherto the sole preserve of the Prime Minister, was outsourced to 10 Janpath. Till the office of profit issue forced Sonia Gandhi to be a little more careful, even crucial policy-making was vested in the National Advisory Council headed by her.

Manmohan’s unique contribution to India’s system of governance lay in transforming the Central Government into a confederal arrangement. Lalu Prasad Yadav did his own thing in Rail Bhawan; Praful Patel proceeded on the belief that the promotion of private airlines also involved crippling the public sector; Ambumani Ramadoss carried out his own witchhunt at AIIMS; and crony capitalism became the norm in DMK-run ministries. Nor were Congress Cabinet ministers more disciplined. Arjun Singh followed his neo-Mandal and Muslim appeasement agenda in the Human Resource Development ministry, Mani Shankar Aiyar thought it fit to pursue an independent course of energy diplomacy in the short period he was Petroleum Minister, and P Chidambaram never took kindly to even the gentlest hint of criticism. And the more arduous task of political management was left to Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee.

Manmohan had some qualities that are unique to a holder of the country’s most important political job — he was not vain and egoistical. His professorial air was genuine. As Winston Churchill remarked about his Labour rival Clement Atlee (somewhat unfairly), he was a modest man with much to be modest about. His total inexperience with electoral politics and his awareness that he was just a proxy made him adaptable. He chose to look the other way on the issue of tainted ministers, the 2G scandal involving a DMK minister and the clean chit to Ottavio Quattrocchi. He even exonerated former External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh for his shameful involvement in the Iraqi oil for food scandal. Without Manmohan’s negotiable sense of right and wrong, the UPA Government would never have run its full course.

It is interesting that the coalition fell apart almost instantly once the Congress Party — egged on, it is said, by Rahul Gandhi — decided to flex its muscles on the question of seat distribution for the Lok Sabha polls.

Manmohan’s total inexperience with electoral politics and his awareness that he was just a proxy made him adaptable. He looked the other way on corrupt ministers

THERE WAS only one issue on which Manmohan was adamant: the Indo-US nuclear agreement. The agreement with US President George W Bush in July 2005 may have begun as a logical step forward from the Indo-US proximity during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but Manmohan saw this as his door key to history. It is undeniable that the nuclear deal would have perished midstream had Manmohan not made it a prestige issue. He even indicated that he was willing to resign and create a political crisis if the UPA buckled under the “anti-imperialism” of Prakash Karat. It was Sonia Gandhi and her political team that forged the alliance with the Samajwadi Party; and it was with crucial intelligence inputs that a sufficient number of defectors were organised to win the Trust Vote in July 2008. However, even these initiatives would not have been taken had Manmohan not made it clear that this was one thing on which he would not yield.

History will undeniably recognise the seminal role of Manmohan in ushering the Indo-US nuclear deal. The question is: why was Manmohan so uncharacteristically insistent? It is significant to note that he even preferred to look the other way when macro-economic management — a subject so close to his heart — was horribly messed up by Chidambaram. The man who couldn’t even get his political bosses to agree to Montek Singh Ahluwalia becoming the Finance Minister of a devastated economy, managed to force through a fiercely controversial agreement with the US. Why, of all things, did Manmohan choose this issue to make a stand?

The rise in irresponsible spending by the government sucked liquidity from the markets, kept interest rates high, and shattered the expectations of the middle class

The assertion that he was intellectually convinced that the deal was good for India cannot explain everything. Manmohan may have been convinced that India’s burgeoning fiscal deficit will be very damaging to the country in the long run. Yet, he sat back and watched the deficit spiral to the point that it now accounts for 13 percent of the GDP or more. The Prime Minister may also have known that the architecture of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was flawed and contributed to non-productive expenditure. He did nothing about it. On the contrary, the Congress manifesto almost promises to put the onus of all welfare measures on an ever-expanding NREGA scheme.

Manmohan’s sense of correctness has always been governed by a high sense of expediency, yet he made the nuclear agreement a prestige issue. And he carried the day despite formidable odds. Handled well in future years, the agreement will contribute immeasurably towards making India a regional power and a possible alternative to China in the region. If the US declines, but not too precipitately, India’s status as a non-threatening global power may also be assured.

However, to view the nuclear deal in splendid isolation may be flawed. Whether the agreement creates the pre-conditions for India’s rise as a global power or becomes an instrument for US interference in our strategic objectives will depend on how the country shapes up internally. What is important is that Manmohan may have made the choice by doing absolutely nothing to bolster India’s strategic clout.

Divided Manmohan Singh has always hit out at the BJP and its leader, LK Advani
Divided Manmohan Singh has always hit out at the BJP and its leader, LK Advani
Photo: AP

The most important failing was in the realms of national security. For more than four years, till the 26/11 attack on Mumbai forced an overdue reappraisal, the UPA Government coupled laxity with denial. It proceeded on the dangerous assumption that any pre-emptive assault on terrorism would lead to the possible loss of Muslim votes for the Congress and other secular parties. Quite needlessly, the punishment meted out to Afzal Guru for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament was kept on hold, thereby making terrorism a sectarian issue. The intelligence gathering machinery of the state was allowed to rust on the dubious premise that intrusiveness would offend Muslims. Manmohan stood by meekly as Cabinet ministers such as Arjun Singh and Kapil Sibal chose to make an issue of the counter-terrorism operation in Delhi’s Batla House.

To lay the blame for India’s laxity on the previous Home Minister Shivraj Patil may be expedient politics, but it does not exonerate the Prime Minister. It calls into question his warped sense of priorities. Manmohan, it would seem, was willing to run the extra mile to keep India’s commitment to the US — and he was right to do so. But he couldn’t stir himself to use his position to tell the puppet masters of the UPA that the security of ordinary people couldn’t be taken so lightly. Manmohan chose to preside over a UPA that viewed counter-terrorism through the prism of communal politics. The Prime Minister may now make disapproving noises about Varun Gandhi, but didn’t he contribute to creating the conditions for hate to flower?

THE SHIFTING of the T-20 Indian Premier League to a foreign country was the result of five years of sustained disregard of national security. Manmohan today heads a government that has implicitly admitted that conditions in India may be as bad as those prevailing in Pakistan. With his government’s laxity, he diluted India’s claim to be regarded as a bulwark in the war on terror. He re-established the hyphenated India-Pakistan syndrome.

Nor does it end here. The NDA Government fell a political victim to unfulfilled expectations. Yet, it bequeathed to the UPA a vibrant, entrepreneur-driven economy and a healthy growth rate. Five years later, Manmohan has left behind an Indian economy whose fundamentals are beginning to look distinctly shaky. The UPA rode the crest of an economic boom. But instead of using the good fortune to invest in the future, it chose the path of profligate spending, which can’t be sustained during the bad times. Important measures of the Vajpayee Government such as the building of highways and the creation of a network of rural roads were whittled down dramatically. The NREGA couldn’t stop rural suicides and rural indebtedness. On the contrary, the rise in irresponsible spending by the government sucked liquidity from the markets, kept interest rates well above global levels and shattered the expectations of the new middle class for home ownership and a better life. In 2004, the Congress manifesto promised 10 million new jobs each year; in 2009, there were already 15 millions Indians who had been made redundant as a result of the blunting of India Inc’s competitive edge. Manmohan responded by absolving himself of all decision-making obligations. Since December 2008, India doesn’t have a Finance Minister.

Last Tuesday, during the release of the Congress’ election manifesto, Manmohan claimed that the party had met 80 percent of its assurances to the people. It was the most brazen and preposterous claim made with a complete straight face. It was reminiscent of the 1999 election when, as the Congress candidate for South Delhi, he charged the RSS of being responsible for the anti-Sikh riots in 1984.

India, it has been recognised since 1996, has entered a troubled period of coalition governments. The national parties no longer have the necessary clout to be able to form a government at the Centre on their own steam. They have to take the help of disparate smaller parties which have a sectional focus. Yet, despite these constraints, both Vajpayee and Manmohan have led coalitions that have lasted the full term. But the styles of the two were sharply different. Vajpayee was at the helm of a federal arrangement which was held together by an agreed leader and defined priorities. Manmohan led a confederal arrangement where each partner (indeed, each minister) did their own thing and where the leader existed as a symbolic figurehead. Vajpayee used his personal standing in the electorate as his crutch. Manmohan did one better. He made the post of Prime Minister irrelevant. Mamnohan walked through a field of snow and left no footprints.

(Dasgupta is a political commentator)