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Will the real Manmohan Singh please stand up?

August 31, 2011

On the 25th of August, when the Indian Prime Minister spoke to the Parliament on the issue dominating the nation’s attention – the non-violent, in-your-face protest championed by Annasaheb Hazare – neither the House nor the nation was impressed. The erudite PM’s droning, once lovable, monotone never sounded flatter or more impotent. He reserved the first half of his speech to defending his own image, chiefly by citing his past achievements. That done, he spoke about the constraints the government faces while tackling corruption. And then, he weakly suggested that the Parliament debate on all the versions of the Lokpal Bill that are available in the public domain.

‘He [Annasaheb Hazare] has registered his point,’ the PM said towards the end of his speech.

Well, by making the government buckle under his demands for the second time in four months, Annasaheb has certainly registered his point. Meanwhile, the PM himself has been unable to do the same for a long, long time. And nothing underlines this fact better than the sullen, stony silence he nowadays wears to the floor of the House. The mask of composure seems to be wearing thin, and underneath, one sees... what? Despondency, a bleak surrender to greater powers?

It would appear so. Despite occupying the most powerful chair in the land, the PM has made it a habit to convey his helplessness to the nation. Talking to journalists in February about the mega-scams rocking his government, he said that the “limitations of coalition politics” cannot be ignored. In other words, the entire 2G spectrum scam was due to the DMK’s insistence that A. Raja be appointed the Telecom Minister. One rotten apple, that the PM himself didn’t pick, had apparently spoilt the entire harvest. And this defence didn’t even explain the CWG scam and Adarsh Society scam sponsored by Congress party stalwarts. As of today, some of the scamsters are behind bars primarily because the judiciary snubbed the legislative and forced the investigative agencies to take action. In fact, the Supreme Court went to the extent of blaming the PM for prolonged inaction on the 2G scam. That’s a serious allegation on a man with a glorious past, a man who has shown glimpses of exemplary courage.

During his previous term, Manmohan Singh risked the future of his government to push the Indo-US nuclear deal through – when the Communists withdrew support to the government, as everybody knew they would, the PM found an unlikely ally in the Samajwadi Party. In that instance, he refused to accept the limitations of coalition politics. What has changed now? Does he value energy security over clean governance? Rather unlikely. After all, he ensured that the Parliament passed the Right to Information Act, which has given the general public an effective tool to combat corruption, especially in the bureaucracy. (Interestingly, Arvind Kejriwal, a key member of Team Anna, shot to fame as an RTI activist.)

It’s a matter of great concern that the legacy of Manmohan Singh has been diluted to such a great extent in a matter of eighteen months. Other than the RTI, this man:

• Introduced NREGA, an Act that guarantees minimum employment to a subset of rural Indians.

• Being a bipartisan politician, has carried forward key schemes launched by Vajypayee’s government such as the Golden Quadrilateral and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (which strives to deliver elementary education to every Indian child). His government, in fact, alleviated the education scenario by introducing the Right to Education Act in 2009.

• Has used his moderate outlook and popularity amongst peers to improve international relations on almost every front.

• Has played a stellar role as the Finance Minister in P. V. Narasimha Rao’s government. From being totally broke in 1991, the Indian economy is now one of the fastest growing in the world, and a major portion of this credit must go to Manmohan Singh.

These are only the most remarkable in the PM’s long list of achievements. But it doesn’t become him to list them out regularly in his speeches, just because somebody or the other made a vulgar attack on his persona – shouldn’t he rest assured that no sane, unmotivated person will accuse him of being corrupt?

At the same time, his inaction, as highlighted by the Supreme Court, cannot be condoned. In fact, it’s perplexing that he choose to do nothing of consequence. After all, he’s in the enviable position of having nothing to lose. It’s difficult to imagine him wanting, or getting, another term. Besides, he has no love for material goods, and one would like to believe that he does not seek power for its own sake. So when the proverbial bribe-stacks began hitting the ceiling, why didn’t he take the opportunity to clean up the mess within the establishment? Was he afraid that powerful backend elements would kick him out? Well, if it had come to that, wouldn’t those elements have exposed their true colours? And consequently, wouldn’t we be scurrying to buy pale blue turban cloth instead of Gandhi caps?

As it turned out, the PM allowed the situation to reach a flashpoint that facilitated Annasaheb’s movement. And what a movement it turned out to be! Civil Rights groups in India are usually defeated by the government’s apathy and obduracy. An illustrious example of this is the prolonged Narmada Bachao Andolan. Similar, lesser-known battles, are fought routinely in every part of the country – groups protesting against ill-conceived Special Economic Zones or the plundering of natural resources are waylaid as a matter of course. In this backdrop, Annasaheb’s movement achieved so much in such a short timeframe. This can only be interpreted as a firm indictment of the Union government in general and the Prime Minister in particular.

Yet, all is not lost. The PM still has sufficient time to reclaim his honour. There are more scoundrels to nab, Ministers to be admonished for abysmal performance, black money to be repatriated from Switzerland and other places etc. Meanwhile, the threat posed by Naxalites needs to be addressed by a development-centric strategy – Naxalism isn’t a pure law-and-order issue.

Yes, it’s safe to say that the PM has enough opportunities to redeem himself. Does he have the desire and energy to do so? Only time will tell. I remain optimistic because I vividly recall seeing the live telecast of his 1991 Budget speech as a teenager. After he declared the government’s decision to usher in economic reforms, he ended by quoting from that most liberating Urdu poem:

Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna baazu-e-qaatil mein hai.

Indeed. One hopes that the PM repeats this phrase one last time and has a go. Otherwise, the most charitable thing the younger generations will say about him is, ‘He probably meant well.’

Eshwar Sundaresan is a Bangalore-based writer, freelance journalist, ideator and entrepreneur. His works are Googlable.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.