If only Dr Manmohan Singh, a competent economist and honest politician, is allowed a free hand to do his job, he could emerge an efficient administrator.

Rasheeda Bhagat

At long last the beleaguered Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, gave the signal that there is a limit to what even a gentle, soft-spoken person like him can endure. Last Friday the equity indices tumbled amid rumours that he had met the Congress(I) President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, and told her he would like to step down from his post.

The immediate provocation, of course, was the DMK's ultimatum that if the UPA Government did not reverse its decision on disinvestment in Neyveli Lignite Corporation, its ministers would quit the Cabinet. The NLC divestment issue was threatening to boomerang on the DMK, not only because its trade unions in the Corporation are strong, but also because the AIADMK chief, Ms Jayalalithaa, was fanning the flames when the NLC workers went on a strike. And opposition had already been expressed, even from the Congress(I) ranks, against divestment in the other candidate, NALCO.

When the PMO issued a statement that the Prime Minister had decided to put on hold "all divestment" proposals, it was a clear indication that the decision had come from an unhappy man, widely respected for the economic reforms he had ushered in in the 1990s.

Barely a day earlier, the PMK had extracted its pound of flesh, with the Union Health Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, having his way in the unprecedented sacking of the AIIMS Director, Dr P. Venugopal, after the two of them had sparred in public over several issues, particularly quotas. The front-page news of the AIIMS Director's sacking did not exactly cover the UPA Government with glory. The grapevine had it that Dr Manmohan Singh was against such harsh action, but the Health Minister stood his ground and had his way.

With the Delhi High Court stepping in to stay the unceremonious dismissal of a top-ranking health professional of the Capital's premier medical institution, it seemed as though the judiciary had to come to the rescue of a Prime Minister whose writ didn't seem to be running

vis-à-vis

his colleagues in the Cabinet.

Crown of thorns

For a couple of months now, and even as the UPA Government was celebrating the completion of two years in office, Dr Manmohan Singh has looked extremely uncomfortable with his crown of thorns. The UPA allies, ranging from the Left parties to the DMK/PMK combine, as well as Cabinet colleagues and others from the Congress Party, have done their utmost to make his life difficult, rendering it impossible for the Prime Minister to send out the most important signal of good governance consistent policies.

The further opening up of the insurance sector to private players that had been promised by the UPA Government has not materialised, owing to pressure from the Left parties; the hike in fuel prices came in so late and after so much dilly-dallying and opposition from the Left that the Government's announcement that the oil companies would now be allowed to revise petroleum prices in tandem with rising crude prices, appears a joke.

The Congress-ruled States foregoing, with a lot of fanfare, the additional sales tax they would have got after the recent hike in petroleum products, was a clear signal that the party itself was not in favour of the hike. With an eye on the elections, particularly in Uttar Pradesh that come up next year, clearly the direction from the high command was that there was no point in having won the last Lok Sabha election on the grand-sounding slogan

Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath

, if the party was perceived to be indifferent to the common man.

Soon it became evident that the Congress leadership was getting very uncomfortable about non-Congress allies as well as Opposition parties walking away with the credit of being more sensitive to the common man's problems, particularly the spiralling prices of vegetables and other commodities, not the least due to the fuel price hike.

`Political sagacity'

At times like these, `political sagacity' takes precedence over economic good sense, and hence we saw Ms Sonia Gandhi meeting Congress chief ministers to tell them that their first priority should be to hold the price line. Even during that meeting the message was clear to the Prime Minister and his "reform-friendly" colleagues in the Cabinet and the Planning Commission that keeping the voter happy took precedence over all else.

Nothing wrong in this. Controlling inflation and holding the price line are good for any economy and convey the message that the nation is in safe hands. Coming to the other issue of the farmers' distress and the alarming number of suicides being reported from several States, it meant a lot to the people of Maharashtra's Vidarbha that Dr Manmohan Singh visited the region, talked to farmers and their families, and announced a relief package.

The priority of any government should be to do its best for all sections and not just the urban, the educated and the rich. But what rankles is when the priority of any government, and its spin doctors, is confined to making a

show

of such concerns, instead of setting about the task of equitable and humane governance in all earnestness and with all the efficiency at its command.

Unfortunately, what we have seen in India time and again, is more a show and a sham; whether it is wiping the tears of distressed farmers or comforting and ensuring justice to the victims of communal riots or caste discrimination. Governments and politicians are quick to capitalise on the misery of the economically and socially unprivileged or the religious minorities and devise slogans to seize political and electoral advantage. Mostly lacking is the resolve to do the right by them.

Eroding of authority

Most of the time, petty vested interests take precedence over the greater good. This is what is happening within the Congress now. An Arjun Singh opening the Pandora's box on quotas in IITs and IIMs in order to emerge the messiah of the backward classes; and Congress leaders blaming the Prime Minister's economic agenda for all the votes lost in State elections. In the process, they are eroding the authority and diminishing the image of one of the most honest and capable leaders this country has seen.

Unfortunately, integrity and capability lose their sheen in a leader who is seen to be weak and incapable of asserting his authority. Political popularity Dr Manmohan Singh has never had, nor did his mentor, P. V. Narasimha Rao, win the huge mandate for the Congress(I) in 1991 on his own steam; rather, he was carried into power by the wave of sympathy for the party after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. And yet Narasimha Rao set the country firmly on the path of development, laying the groundwork for the processes of reform and liberalisation. But the present Prime Minister is no Chanakya, like Narasimha Rao was. And even Narasimha Rao was humiliated post-1996 by his partymen.

What Dr Manmohan Singh does have is the image of a good man, a competent economist, an honest politician, and if only allowed to do his job, could emerge an efficient administrator.

But, clearly, the powers-that-be in the Congress have decided not to allow him to do this. With Congressmen refusing to recognise the Prime Minister's authority, blatantly paying obeisance to what is undoubtedly the real centre of power at 10 Janpath, Dr Manmohan Singh is today reduced to a pale shadow of the man he once was. He needs to reflect if the price he is paying in terms of loss of self-esteem and the disappointment of millions of Indians who once admired him is worth it. Hemmed in from all sides and with little elbow-room to take India towards its destiny of a developed nation, how much can a prime minister achieve? And after the Mumbai blasts he faces the ever more difficult challenge of convincing the nation that his government will take tough measures to curb terrorism. While the collective Congress psyche strains to keep the Prime Minister's seat warm for a Gandhi scion, what the party cannot see is the BJP readying for mid-term polls, on the one hand, and the Mulayams and Mayawatis once again dreaming of heading a Third Front government. Is this going to be our destiny?

(Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 13, 2006)
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