Why Singh is not King

The uninspiring leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is leading UPA-II into an abyss of no return
Hardnews Bureau Delhi

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to Frankfurt on September 21 on his way to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, he could not leave his domestic worries behind. The grave crisis that has engulfed his government and party due to the scam probe as well as his abysmally poor and uninspiring leadership seemed to be chasing him everywhere.

Just as the prime minister touched down at Frankfurt came the news about the release of a Union finance ministry memo sent to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), which was presented as evidence during the Supreme Court hearing where blame for the 2G scam was put squarely on the doorstep of former finance minister P Chidambaram. In short, the current Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was holding the current Home Minister P Chidambaram responsible for the 2G mess – a serious allegation that clearly reflects how deeply divided the government has been since the 2G probe began a year ago. How did the situation come to this pass?

The blame for this blow out in the cabinet should go to the prime minister himself, who had taken great pains to maintain an ‘arms length’ from the contentious decision of the telecom ministry to sell 2G spectrum at 2001 entry prices. Manmohan Singh just did not want the 2G dirt to stick to him. Clearly, this twilight zone is full of eerie silences. 

The uncanny question is, why didn’t the prime minister take an ethically transparent position on this murky affair in the first instance? Even he would agree, that with the Left backing the UPA-I government from ‘outside’, he had an ally which was clean, not diabolical or opportunistic, credible, principled, rigidly incorruptible, and committed to the secular, egalitarian, pro-poor common minimum programme. So how come he had no qualms in ditching this reliable ally, who refused to even want the perks and privileges of the government, or lucrative ministerial portfolios, unlike the corrupt DMK ministers? 

When the nuclear deal debate was peaking, in an interview with a Calcutta daily, Manmohan Singh had said categorically, almost like a threat: “I told them that it is not possible to renegotiate the deal. It is an honourable deal, the cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them to do whatever they want to do, if they want to withdraw support,so be it….” (The Telegraph, August 11, 2007

If a ‘personally honest’ Manmohan Singh could be so belligerent and dogmatic with an incorruptible Left, how come he chose to be so flexible, accommodating and polite with a brazenly corrupt DMK as ally? On the 2G scam, then, he could have easily told them…So be it... 

So why did he not do that? 

Besides, inany case, his grandiose dream project, for which he decisively alienated and humiliated the Left, has not yet taken off. Will it ever take off? Indeed, the nuclear deal, for which he staked the UPA-I government, has turned out to be a dumb charade.

Without getting intooft-repeated trivia about chasing the trail of letters and who said what about the messy deal, the contours of the scam are as follows. The prime minister did not agree with the 2G spectrum sale on first-cum-first-served basis. In 2006, DMK bully Dayanidhi Maran told him that his telecom ministry will not allow the pricing issue to be determined by a group of ministers (GoM). When A Raja was appointed as the telecom minister, he too demanded autonomy in decision-making and did not want the prime minister to meddle in his ministry’s affairs. 

DMK had conveyed amply to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi that any interference in the functioning of its ministers could disturb the government’s stability. Armed with this understanding that Congress would do anything to save the UPA government, even if it meant allowing scandalous and crooked mega deals to go through, some powerful businessmen took over Raja’s office and steamrolled any opposition from the prime minister or anyone else in the government. Those who objected to the 2G deal were sent packing or overruled. Former law minister HR Bharadwaj, who objected to the deal, as brought out by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report, was one such case. Others kept to their volition or aligned with the winners. 

The letter trail shows that the prime minister’s reservations about the 2G sale carried on for a while; later,it turned cold. Hardnews learns it was at this time that Raja and his friends managed to bring pressure on the prime minister from powerful quarters in the UPA and ensured that their favourites were given the licences as part of a policy decision. Clearly, the manner in which the deal was carried through hurt the prime minister’s self-image. And what did he do? 

He did something that had not been done before. He put the entire policy decision under the scrutiny of the CAG and allowed the Supreme Court to oversee the CBI’s investigation. All these decisions, taken at a level that will not show up in any RTI request, have had cataclysmic fallouts. Since then, A Raja, telecom secretary Siddharth Behura, and M Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, and a dozen-odd corporate honchos are in jail, unable to get bail from an unrelenting court. 

So particular has the prime minister been about his lily white reputation that he reacted sharply when Chidambaram suggested some reservations about the entry price for spectrum sale. In Parliament, he clarified that Chidambaram was aware of the pricing issue. At the time when he made this remark, a senior bureaucrat had observed, “Why is he distancing himself from his own colleagues?” Why? 

It is a manifestation of this attitude that is visible in the manner in which the PMO sought the views of the finance minister this year in which Chidambaram has been squarely blamed. Although Manmohan Singh has defended Chidambaram during his interaction with the media, the matter is not likely to rest here. Singh has opened a Pandora’s Box and it would take a lot of effort to put the lid back. To reiterate his strenuous efforts to protect his image and also his chair, he has created a situation where no decision that his government has taken seems sacrosanct anymore.

By allowing policeinvestigations into decision-making by the Union cabinet, the prime minister has a set wrong precedent. Ideally, he should have owned up to the policy of the 2G sale or the anti-corruption campaign of the courts and the CBI that has brought grief to so many bigwigs; but, true to his ‘safety first policy’, he has done nothing. At best, this reflects a safe bureaucrat’s mind, not that of a politician, and certainly not that of a confident mass politician of stature, intrinsically connected to the people. 

There are many who claim that Singh is getting back at many of those who piled humiliation at him. Apocryphal stories of how decision-making in the PMO was influenced by pressures from people close to the Congress president have been floating around. Many in BJP have been lending energy to suggestions that Singh is not getting along with the Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi. Subramanian Swamy, a person with close ideological links to the RSS, and currently leading the charge against the government and P Chidambaram on the 2G probe, has been a votary of this thesis. 

The crisis in the government and Congress, exacerbated by reports of a serious power struggle and the mysterious illness of Sonia Gandhi, has presented an easy crack to BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Suddenly, a discredited, xenophobic party, roundly defeated in two successive polls, whose 83-year-old prime ministerial candidate was decisively rejected by the people, is strutting around as an alternative to the Congress. 

The Sangh Parivar sees in Congress’s discomfiture an opportunity to reverse the tide against it, destabilise the elected government, and neutralise the investigations that had been launched into the involvement of some Hindutva outfits in terror attacks. Some of those in the arc of investigation are senior RSS leaders. 

Indeed, there is a theory within Congress circles that Chidambaram has been going soft on Hindutva terror investigations, as well as on ‘rogue’ elements within investigating agencies. “He is keeping his options open,” say insiders. “So why is RSS leader Indresh not booked despite reported evidence against him?” 

Understandably, the front organisations of RSS were in full force backing the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare and Ramdev at Ramlila Ground. The Congress government did itself no favour by botching up the handling of the agitation. Growing public perception of Congress’s failings have emboldened the RSS to claim ownership of the anti-corruption movement. Even Sushma Swaraj openly defended the RSS role in Parliament. 

Even a megalomaniac Narendra Modi, backed by some corporates without a conscience, despite the Gujarat carnage stalking him eternally, has unilaterally positioned himself as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, despite no Sangh Parivar consensus on the issue. Clearly, he too is sensing that a weak leadership in the central government is opening up too many cracks, and hopes to manufacture his halo as a strong leader of a hard State with corporate patronage. 

Although Manmohan Singh’s leadership style is nuanced, there is a growing view that a non-political person cannot really run the highly political office of prime minister. Although the clamour for change of leadership in Congress and the government is muted, once Congress politicians realise that his apolitical presence and fledgling leadership, accompanied by explosive tension within the cabinet, are hurting their ticket in their constituencies, then the demand for Rahul Gandhi’s appointment to the top job will get shriller. 

Sources close to the prime minister are categorical that he would leave office the day Sonia or Rahul Gandhi want to take over the top job; but the ‘first family’ will first have to make up its mind. If recent remarks of Rahul are anything to go by, he just does not seem to be in a hurry to inherit this mess, where he will be forced to defend the actions of others, and clear the cobwebs of multiple scams. Till then Singh is King, but Singh is not King!!

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011