As a nation we lack a sense of perspective, and this generally happens when a foreign entity is involved. What a ruckus followed the Time magazine cover story on Manmohan Singh! And, then, when The Independent called our PM Sonia’s Poodle! The Congress party reacted strongly, forgetting that however important the publications might be as moulders of public opinion, they are still only publications.
The spokesmen also forgot that Indian publications have been saying much the same thing (and worse!) for a long time, but that provokes no reaction at all. In a sense, you could say that as a nation we are all poodles, waiting with our tongues hanging out for a pat from the Western hand. When we get a reprimand instead, we howl in protest.
But this piece is not about our foreign obsession. It is about our Prime Minister’s sudden spurt of activity after Pranab Mukherjee left the finance ministry. Regaining investors’ confidence, taking measures that would reassure FIIs, acknowledging that retrospective decisions shake people’s confidence in the government… This flurry of activity, coming right out of the blue, suggests that Singh felt that the finance ministry had taken wrong decisions that needed to be corrected, and corrected quickly.
The question you then ask quite logically is: why didn’t the PM say so to the Pranab Mukherjee and ensure that these decisions were not taken? After all, the Prime Minister is the boss, so he was well within his rights to till the FM where certain policies would have an adverse effect.
The other question that arises is this: in something as vital as the Budget, did Pranab Mukherjee not consult the PM at all? This suggests a Prime Minister who gave an alarming level of autonomy to his cabinet ministers, an autonomy which was abused by ministers like Murasoli Maran, A Raja, Praful Patel and others. Given the extent to which these ministers misused their autonomy, and the massive looting of national wealth some of them indulged in, surely even a PM believing in delegation would learn its dangers, and rein people in?
There’s a story going around which I heard about but scarcely believed in. This was about the first meeting of the cabinet conducted by Singh in his first term. The story goes that the PM addressed Pranab Mukherjee as ‘Sir’, a step so shocking that Mukherjee was most upset. It was probably a left-over from the days when Singh was the Governor of the Reserve Bank, and therefore at a lower hierarchical level than Pranab Mukherjee, who was even then a senior cabinet minister.
But to have retained vestiges of that day speaks of a PM whose memory of a past makes him timid beyond belief. That would explain why even as PM, Singh couldn’t assert himself with his finance minister. And indeed if timidity and an extreme form of gentlemanly correctness is part of Manmohan Singh’s intrinsic nature, he would be quite incapable of pulling up even relatively junior ministers like Raja when they were clearly stepping out of line ( to put it mildly).
Everyone – and not just Time and The Independent – knows that firm leadership is needed to put India back on course. Everyone, especially in India, knows that Manmohan Singh has shown himself incapable of the iron hand in velvet glove that’s now needed. Since there seems to be no alternative in sight, what are we to do? Pranab Mukherjee, the one strong option, has happily kicked himself upstairs; Rahul Gandhi has drifted off in an increasingly irresponsible manner on his own course, waiting for heaven knows what opportune moment. Now that he has said he is ready for greater responsibility, maybe we will see a Rahul.
Our only hope seems to be that the foreign hand (Time, Independent, President Obama, FIIs, etc) will galavanise Singh now that he is at the brink. What a way to go!