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Palace or field?

Updated Sep 08, 2013 07:08am

LIVY, the ancient historian, records the remarkable story of Cincinnatus, whose memory has been reduced to an academic fringe instead of being made compulsory reading for politicians.

In 458 BC, Rome was threatened by the Sabines and Aequi. Cincinnatus was ploughing his fields when summoned to public service. Appointed dictator, he defeated the invading tribes, distributed booty among his troops, and returned to his field, where the plough was precisely where he had left it. That was unsurprising. He had been dictator for only 15 days.

Be it noted that no other dictator or ruler of Rome and its subsequent empire displayed such exemplary virtue. The idea that there is serenity and fulfilment in some pursuit other than power is alien to the powerful.

Only 28 of the 130-odd emperors of Rome died from old age or illness. Most arrived by the sword, and died by it. Political nature craves the pomp of office, and is terrified by the loneliness of retirement.

The only instance of a powerful Indian minister voluntarily giving up office is that of Lal Bahadur Shastri, when he was railways minister. Six decades later, when accidents are the norm rather than an exception, the principle seems quaint if not foolish.

The present parliament would run out of MPs to promote if ministers were held accountable.

Jawaharlal Nehru was the only prime minister who contemplated retirement — at the pinnacle of his success in 1957, rather than when in the depths of defeat after the 1962 war with China.

Nehru’s reasons were so human they seem extraordinary: he wanted to read, write and spend time with his family. He was easily persuaded to remain. Every political story, it is said, ends in tragedy. Nehru’s came in 1962.

But surely political compulsion has not disappeared from politics. Opinion polls confirm visual and anecdotal evidence that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sunk from asset to liability. This is an extraordinary fall, given the levels of popularity he enjoyed in 2009. Perhaps he raised hopes too high, and there was nowhere he could go after that but down. But the facts have hardened to a point where they are unlikely to change.

Narendra Modi is way ahead with 47pc support in the contest for prime minister, according to an ABP News poll; Rahul Gandhi gets only a diehard 18pc and Dr Singh is not really in the picture.

The gap between parties is equally disturbing, if you happen to be a Congress loyalist: the Bharatiya Janata Party gets 36pc support versus 22pc for Congress. Bear in mind that the BJP base is narrower, so this support will have more depth where it exists.

Our parliamentary system gives ruling parties a chance for pause and correction in such a crisis; they can change a prime minister without losing a government. Ms Sheila Dikshit would have been an excellent replacement, filling both the administrative and political vacuum created by the second United Progressive Alliance government.

Why does Congress persist with the status quo? There must be an invisible reason amenable to logic. Mrs Sonia Gandhi will not consider any successor other than Rahul Gandhi, and he is incapable, in his own mind, of stepping up to the plate.

So Congress strategy remains concentrated upon using every mechanism to try and destroy the BJP’s nominee for the top job rather than doing what it can to build Rahul Gandhi as a leader who can deliver us out of this mess. This can be counterproductive. The voter has probably factored in all the negatives about Modi, and then made a decision.

There is nothing substantive to add to the narrative of responsibility for the Gujarat riots. But if the public persona of Rahul Gandhi remains static, or uncertain, then the Congress argument will be wispy when the moment arrives for electoral battle.

Confusion would be worse. If Congress leaves the question unanswered, it will be vulnerable to an affliction that has traditionally been an opposition malady. Both age and record rule out Dr Singh as a candidate for a third term. The only way to woo a sceptical electorate is to establish what Rahul Gandhi stands for, rather than fudge what he is hiding from.

In 2009 Dr Singh was a much younger man than he is today; he has aged more than a decade in less than five years. He looked positive and confident during his first press conference after re-election. He dispatched the inevitable question about Rahul Gandhi promptly. He was ready to step down, he said, whenever Rahul Gandhi wanted the job. Everyone smiled and carried on.

But if Dr Singh had stepped aside in late 2009 or any time in 2010, there would have been, today, a nationwide clamour demanding his return. His first five years would have been praised as a golden spell, equivalent to the 15 days during which Cincinnatus destroyed the nation’s enemies and made Rome the springboard of unprecedented future glory.

But Dr Singh preferred a palace to the ploughing field.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

Tariq K Sami
Sep 08, 2013 08:38am

Great article. In defence of Mr Singh it may be said at least he gave India a new direction.

Sep 08, 2013 10:51am

I was just looking at the foreign exchange rates market today.

While in 2010, the British pound fetched around INR 70, today it is around the INR 102 mark. Wow that is almost a 50% fall and must be of some concern to India's strides towards toppling China?

Sep 08, 2013 11:42am

Power is an Aphrodisiac very few can resist.

Billy Bunter
Sep 08, 2013 11:43am

MJ Akbar is not being fair in his assessement.

Sep 08, 2013 02:47pm

A good article !! India doesn't need Rahul, who survives on the advises of cronies surrounding him. He has neither presented or displayed a principled stance on any of the nation's current issues nor worked to understand them. His only achievements are cheap publicity stunts such as travelling in a second class train compartment, eating at a roadside eatery, sleeping in a poor man's hut. Congress will never allow any other leader to become PM. ManMohan Singh has become so useless in this term that many of his once die-hard fans want to see his back at the earliest. That makes the road for Mr.Modi clear and no wonder his popularity is soaring. Interestingly, it's the Congress leaders who are busy clearing the road for Mr. Modi.

Sep 08, 2013 05:30pm

Rahul is a buddhu according to Dr.Subramaniam Swamy, and Mr.Jethmalani thinks Rahul is also useless.

During BJP rule, Rahul was arrested in Boston airport for carrying excess dollars in his baggage. Since then, he did not visit USA again.

Sep 08, 2013 05:44pm

@Feroz: no wonder why our president was a play boy....

Rajeev Nidumolu
Sep 08, 2013 08:21pm

I am really amazed that experienced journalist with insight into politics has missed the essential weakness of Congress. Congress has put all its eggs in single basket of inexperienced untested leader who owes his position because of his birth in a political family. The failure of congress is because it did not allow capable experienced leaders move up the ranks .Congress has solely banked on the family and placed premium on loyality to the family . Congress has become a collection of sycophants who are together to share the loaves of power

Nabarun Dey
Sep 09, 2013 08:15am

Great MJA once opined 'only Congress can beat Congress'. It was prophetic. I would like to simply add~ 'and they did'nt know what struck them'. Contrary to many believer, Modi's rise will not only usher in new dawn in India, it may help stabilize Pakistan as well. China may be left high and dry in South Asia. Gone will be the days of US hegemony.

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