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Updated: January 17, 2014 05:59 IST

Manmohan makes way

Smita Gupta
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No one in the Congress party questions Manmohan Singh's personal probity and scholarship, but those who have worked with him closely say he is a poor manager, a tardy decision-maker and is hard-pressed to bring passion to issues any longer. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt
The Hindu No one in the Congress party questions Manmohan Singh's personal probity and scholarship, but those who have worked with him closely say he is a poor manager, a tardy decision-maker and is hard-pressed to bring passion to issues any longer. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The confidence the Indian Prime Minister generated among the middle class in his first term saw the Congress sweep all the major metros in the 2009 election, but over the last three years, he has become the face of ineffectual governance

For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s colleagues in the Congress, his announcement on January 3 that he will not be the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate for a third term came not a moment too soon — a fortnight ahead of a crucial All India Congress Committee session that will mull strategy for the forthcoming general election. Over the last three years, as the economy dipped, and financial scandals and large urban social protests took centre stage, Dr. Singh has become the face of ineffectual governance. The media played its role, with television channels working overtime to contrast his low-key, gentle manner with the BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi’s muscular style.

As the general election loomed large, a growing number of Congress MPs — including ministers — seeking re-election had begun to privately articulate the need for a change at least in optics, starting with a clarification that this is Dr. Singh’s last innings: the TINA (there is no alternative) factor no longer works for him. The Prime Minister evidently heard the message, and his own advisers, The Hindu learnt, suggested he mention it in his opening statement at his press conference rather than merely state it in response to what was an anticipated question. At the press conference, he looked feeble and defeated: UPA-II’s inability to create jobs and tackle inflation, something he himself conceded that day, combined with the Aam Aadmi Party’s success in creating a countrywide anti-Congress mood through its relentless focus on corruption, added to the negative atmospherics. The Prime Minister didn’t help himself when he told journalists that the UPA was re-elected in 2009 even though the financial irregularities relating to the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks related to his first term. Of course, it was of a piece with the way the otherwise incorruptible PM has dealt with corruption cases that surfaced in UPA-II, making it harder for the government to counter the AAP narrative.

Five feel-good years

And yet, just four-and-a-half years ago, the same Dr. Singh, transcending the disadvantage of being a “nominated” rather than an “elected” leader, had led the UPA not just to a renewed, but to an enlarged mandate. In 2009, the Congress rode back to power on the back of five feel-good years marked not just by welfare schemes, promoted by Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC) but, equally significantly, by the PM’s skilful stewardship of a coalition government and the economy at a difficult time. His decisive handling of the nuclear deal with the United States and the positive signals he sent out to all minorities played a key role in the Congress’s victory. He roped in the Samajwadi Party to compensate for the Left Parties’ exit, signalling that behind that tentative manner, there was an understanding of politics.

The confidence he generated among the middle class saw the Congress sweep all the major metros; equally in the rural hinterland of Uttar Pradesh, where the party won 22 Lok Sabha seats, in the run-up to the 2009 elections, voters — cutting across the urban-rural barrier, and from differing caste and religious backgrounds — told me they wanted to see a Manmohan Singh–led Congress back in power. There was an economic meltdown, they said, and the country needed an arthashastri (political strategist) at the helm; at a time when India was engaging with the world, the country needed a leader who could converse with world leaders on equal terms.

On May 16, 2009, hours after it became plain that the Congress was back, when Ms. Gandhi and Dr. Singh jointly addressed the media at 10, Janpath, the Congress president cut short the expected babble of Gandhi acolytes who had already stepped up the demand to make Rahul Gandhi PM: “Dr. Manmohan Singh is our prime ministerial candidate,” she said firmly. As the two stood together, a bank of microphones before them, they projected a perfect picture of partnership.

But today, after Dr. Singh’s announcement, this unique power-sharing arrangement may be drawing to a close. Congress leaders, who consistently defended the “dual centres of power” project, are now beginning to question it. The first was party general secretary Digvijaya Singh in March 2013: “Personally, I feel that this [power sharing] model hasn’t worked very well… there shouldn’t be two power centres… Whoever is the Prime Minister must have the authority to function although Sonia Gandhi has really never interfered in the government’s functioning,” he said, when asked whether he believed Rahul Gandhi should follow his mother’s model in future when she stepped aside to make Dr. Singh PM.

Subsequently, Mr Singh retracted what he had said after a fellow functionary criticised him for it; but the idea had been introduced in the public domain. Today, the numbers of those saying that the power-sharing model has failed has swelled, even though it is being said behind closed doors. Those privy to exchanges between the PM and the Congress president say it has been a very correct relationship with the two deferring to one another depending on the occasion, governmental or party; it has also been one of trust. On issues of pluralism and social inclusion, it has been a meeting of the minds. But on economic and foreign policy issues — the Prime Minister’s core areas of interest — there were differences. If many in the party now feel that a division of power came in the way of a coherent vision, a key sympathiser of Dr. Singh disagrees: “In a democracy, if leaders differ on policy issues and debate them, it is healthy as it leads to better decision-making. The real problem lay in the NAC becoming a parallel centre of policy, undermining Dr. Singh’s authority in [the] Cabinet,” he said, adding, with some cynicism, that those in the party now saying that the power-sharing arrangement failed are doing so to block the possibility of a P. Chidambaram or an A.K. Antony emerging as Dr. Singh’s successor, should the UPA win a third term.

Undermining of PM’s authority

Indeed, Dr. Singh was aware that the Sonia Gandhi–led NAC’s existence tended to undermine his authority in government and he subtly sought to block its resurrection in UPA-II (in UPA-I, it receded into the background after 2006, when Ms. Gandhi resigned as chairperson following the Office of Profit controversy): a whole year elapsed after the UPA returned to power in 2009 before the NAC was reconstituted in June 2010.

No one in the party still questions Dr. Singh’s personal probity, phenomenal memory, intellect or scholarship, but those who have worked with him closely say that he is a poor manager, a tardy decision-maker, and finds it hard to bring the passion he brought to the India-U.S. nuclear deal to all that he does. In UPA-II, as the disapproval of his own party colleagues began to show, a Cabinet minister said, he left it increasingly to Pranab Mukherjee — now President — to lead at Cabinet meetings, leading eventually to a dysfunctional government. If in UPA-I, Dr. Singh looked to allies such as the Nationalist Congress Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal to “balance” Congress colleagues, in UPA-II, he began to look for “friends” within the Cabinet to deal with his increasing isolation. Above all, he is a poor communicator.

History, Dr. Singh said at his press conference, will judge him kindly. Perhaps, it will, given his record in UPA-I. For the moment, it remains to be seen whether Dr. Singh’s opting out of a third term will bring the power-sharing arrangement to an end in the Congress — and herald the return of absolute supremacy to the family. On Thursday, a day ahead of the AICC session, after members of the Congress Working Committee proposed that Rahul Gandhi be named the prime ministerial candidate, Ms. Gandhi opposed it in her capacity as party president: Mr. Gandhi will now be the party’s campaign committee chief, and the decision to name him the PM candidate has been deferred. But party leaders stressed that in the unlikely event of the Congress returning to power later this year, Mr. Gandhi would be the PM candidate.

smita.g@thehindu.co.in

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The existence of the so called 'dual centres of power'itself, to me, is
a myth and creation of the media. So there is no question of the two
'coming to a close'. There really exists all along only one centre of
power and that is solely Mrs.Gandhi. The only occasion of Dr.Singh's
assertion was in the nuclear deal.At all other times Dr.Singh
himself,true to his nature had never been enamoured of exercising his
Prime Ministerial authority as"he left it increasingly to Pranab
Mukherjee to lead at Cabinet meetings". Even in 'the economic and
foreign policy issues the PM's core areas of interest' only the will of
Mrs.Gandhi must have prevailed as in the case of Food Security the
brain child of Mrs.Gandhi how far in his heart of hearts the Economist
PM could have gone with this Rs.124724 crore scheme is anybody's
guess.There is thus only one centre of power-Mrs.Gandhi.Every elected
Congress person in the country owes his/her position to the Congress
party which in other words is Mrs.Gandhi.

from:  G.Jagannathan
Posted on: Jan 18, 2014 at 13:47 IST

/>"Mr Manmohan Singh's silence on scams and corruption by his colleagues
in UPA government and in Party has cost the country so much that the
same has put the country in the lowest wealth generating countries in
the world despite having solid assets. His loyalty to the family has
made the country poor and it will be difficult for the Family to get
substitute in 2014 of a PM candidate matching the silent spectator in
the unlikely event of Congress coming back to power."

from:  MVJRao
Posted on: Jan 18, 2014 at 11:51 IST

another ten years just went by but the toilets are dirty, no roads, no water, no power, more poverty, more illiteracy - what was the acheivement by the family and congress to the nation

from:  hari
Posted on: Jan 18, 2014 at 02:54 IST

India has moved to a multi- party system before Germany and the UK.The
present government is made up of many parties not two or three, and
this may determine how coalitions are perceived and governed.The would
be PM in waiting should learn how to manage different parties.Dr Man
Mohan Singh failed to learn this lesson, hence got the name of a weak
person.He is not weak in his subject or introducing new measures, but
did not learn the lesson.The conflicts between parties and corruption
ruined his reputation without knowing as to how to handle the corrupt
ministers of other parties and his own party,the people also should be
prepared that they will get the same story if BJP comes to power or
any other party as the lesson has not been learnt by the BJP when they
were in power.

from:  R.Chandrasekhar
Posted on: Jan 18, 2014 at 01:52 IST

Had he been given a free hand may be the plight of India and Indian
economy would have taken a new dimension.He was a puppet and the
strings were held by Sonia Ghandhi so he couldn't move independenly.
Nobody could question his Talent and Intelligence, he was a scholar who
would have done a lot of things diffrently had he been given a free
hand.

from:  Asokan Suppiah
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 21:42 IST

He was never in the way at any time. All this time he was more like a liability and compulsion for the nation and the dynasty.

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 18:55 IST

After May 2009, at the time of the formation of the cabinet of UPA-II itself, Manmohan Singh lost the battle. He should have had the guts to take into the cabinet even from the allies, only those in whom he had the confidence. Or at least allocate portfolios according to his own assessment. To say that he had to accommodate all & sundry because of "compulsions of coalition" was the root cause of all his subsequent problems. A PM who staked his Govt. for the sake of the nuclear deal, should have done the same if not more, to form his cabinet. He showed himself at his weakest in not being able to do so which was the cause of all his subsequent troubles.

from:  S.Ganesh
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 18:41 IST

“Personally, I feel that this [power sharing] model hasn’t worked very
well… there shouldn’t be two power centres… Whoever is the Prime
Minister must have the authority to function" (Digvijaya Singh). Under
Congress, India passed into a monarchy. “In a democracy, if leaders
differ on policy issues and debate them, it is healthy as it leads to
better decision-making. The real problem lay in the NAC becoming a
parallel centre of policy, undermining Dr. Singh’s authority in [the]
Cabinet”. Was the NAC not the Monarch's parallel Govt?

The elected Ministers used their advanced education to plunder the
nation for personal and party gain, collectively and probably
individually, and betrayed the citizens who trusted them. The demise
of Congress, in its present form, cannot come too soon for the good of
India. The party should disband, and the money grabbers should
consider themselves lucky if they are not prosecuted for plundering
the nation.

from:  D Mahapatra
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 13:38 IST

for pm to record his name in history he must to do something credible

from:  himanshu
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 13:33 IST

I think too much is being made of Manmohan Singh's personal probity.
How does probity square with claiming to represent Assam on the basis
of rent receipts (reportedly back-dated) given by a Congress chief
manager? While we do not have evidence of Manmohan Singh having
personally benefited, it is a fact that he turned a Nelson's eye while
his cabinet colleagues plundered. Further, it was during his tenure
as Coal Minister that capricious allocations were made.
It is not merely passion that he lacks. If he had a strong sense of
values, he would not been a passive spectator to questionable goings-
on.

from:  Daniel S Mahanty
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 13:27 IST

I wanted to offer a detailed and reasoned comment on this news item. But then I noticed MaunMaunSingh's photograph appearing herein. As this speaks a volume on the 'despairing' conditiion he is about to leave our country, I dropped the idea and instead offer this comment. This very photo speaks a volume on the condition in which he is about to leave India ! I am sure India will never forgive him for his 'non-achievements' during his second term.

from:  C. Lal
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 13:26 IST

The performance of a PM can be judged by the fact when he says Nuclear deal was the greatest moment of his tenure. In short Manmohan Singh failed as PM.

from:  Vijay Raina
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 12:48 IST

I don't quite agree with Ms. Gupta that the Congress' return to power, even if with an enlarged mandate, was owing to any "confidence" Dr. Singh inspired in any class, lower, middle or upper. I think it was down to an ineffectual challenge mounted by the BJP, and electoral arithmetic working in favour of the ruling coalition.
Since Dr. Singh's last press conference, I have been racking my mind for any positive contribution he might have made in the last ten years. And here, Dr. Singh has the French President, Mr. Hollande to thank: at least, there have been no sex scandals involving our top leadership! That really is the only positive I can think of.

from:  Anil Suri
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 11:03 IST

manmohan's era is over now its time for Mr. Rahul Gandhi to keep his
legacy maintained, & i hope with all due respect he will prove himself
in coming loksabha elections.

from:  Amrit Raj
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 10:43 IST

The designation carrying prefix of 'Prime' before 'Minister' should make it sufficiently clear and leaves no room for dual leadership.

from:  Sarjit Singh
Posted on: Jan 17, 2014 at 08:23 IST
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