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.