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The Manmohan Singh impact

Harish Khare

Congress has bucked anti-incumbency because Dr. Singh has reinforced its reputation as a party of responsible governance

NEW DELHI: Three months ago some of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s friends and aides were not averse to expressing their sense of disappointment that the Congress seemed so reluctant to project him as its prime ministerial mascot. Their argument was that he was an asset to the party, and the electorate was bound to appreciate his honesty, integrity and efficiency.

Then the Bharatiya Janata Party did the good doctor a favour. The principal Opposition party took a strategic decision to convert the Lok Sabha elections into a kind of presidential contest between its “strong leader” L.K. Advani and the “weak” Manmohan Singh. Mr. Advani started attacking Dr. Singh as the “weakest Prime Minister,” ridiculing him for being subservient to the Congress president, taunting him as a wimp, and heaping scorn, saying: “I do not get angry with him; I pity him.”

The personalised attacks produced two responses. The Congress found itself coming to the Prime Minister’s defence. At the function to release the party manifesto, Ms Sonia Gandhi dramatically projected Dr. Singh as the undisputed prime ministerial candidate.

For the first time since Independence, the Nehru-Gandhi family was seen as seeking vote for someone from outside the dynasty. The family trio, Ms. Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi, had warm, endorsing words of praise for the Prime Minister. Mr. Rahul Gandhi, who many Congress leaders thought could be slipped in as the prime ministerial choice, went out of his way to praise Dr. Singh and indeed insist that he was the designated helmsman.

In the face of the outbreak of an epidemic of prime ministerial ambitions, the Congress also found itself asserting that there would be no compromise on the choice of Dr. Singh as its prime ministerial face. Nor was the party fazed by the Left’s open opposition to his policies.

The BJP’s leadership offensive and the Congress response brought about an unintended focus on Dr. Singh. The country, especially the middle class, appeared to have recoiled at the prospect of preferring seemingly lesser qualified men and women to a “tried and trusted” administrator. This phenomenon seemed well pronounced in Uttar Pradesh, where the voters had to factor in Chief Minister Mayawati’s aggressive assertion of her prime ministerial entitlements.

Unobtrusively, Dr. Singh became the symbol of a dormant collective aspiration for governmental stability, administrative performance, and decency in public life. When he did join issue with Mr. Advani on leadership, there was a sense of discovery that the man was capable of packing a counter punch. The BJP’s attacks on Dr. Singh, indeed, offended society’s sense of fair play.

Above all, there was a yearning for and appreciation of a performing government at the Centre — and a clear preference for a proven administrator over traffickers in slogans and emotions.

Over the past five years, Dr. Singh succeeded in calming the nation’s collective nerves, especially in the face of repeated terror attacks. Now his presence as the Prime Minister seemed to have had a reassuring impact way beyond New Delhi’s chatterati, as the nation tried to come to terms with a global fiscal crisis and economic slowdown. As a group of Muslims in eastern Uttar Pradesh told a colleague: “Sixteen major banks have failed in the United States; not a single Indian bank has folded up; all because we have had Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister.”

Middle-class aspirations for growth and job opportunities have seeped down. If the Congress has bucked anti-incumbency, it is primarily because it had Dr. Singh reinforcing its reputation as a party of serious and responsible governance.

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