So, the rumours are true. A few days ago the media quoted "sources" to suggest that Sonia Gandhi wanted both Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and Law Minister Ashwani Kumar to go. There were doubters, but now it is clear: Madam did really want them out.
However, this development brings to the fore the fundamental contradiction that lay at the heart of every UPA crisis – the separation of power from responsibility, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh having the responsibility but not the power, and Congress President Sonia Gandhi having the power but not the responsibility.
Sonia Gandhi's decisive blow against Bansal and Kumar shows where the real power lies, and ends the charade. The pretence that she and the PM were playing a tuneful jugalbandi now has to be modified, if not abandoned. Manmohan Singh has been shown his place.
Thus far the assumption has always been that the two share a deep relationship of trust. But this was always partially untrue, for the real relationship was between Feudal Baroness and Loyal Regent.
The fact that Sonia Gandhi always made a public show of deference to Manmohan Singh was misread by many as genuine respect for the latter’s capabilities. It is possible that even Singh misread her intentions – which was buttressed by Sonia Gandhi’s decision to back him in 2008 when he unilaterally put the government in jeopardy by pushing the Left out on the Indo-US nuclear deal.
But if UPA-1 was the time when Sonia had to like-or-lump Manmohan Singh’s rare display of independence on inconsequential issue, in UPA-2 it was entirely the other way round, when a grateful Singh played Loyal Retainer to his boss. This time he was content to occupy the PM’s chair, never mind what his title said was his job.
This is the real tragedy of Manmohan Singh. He confused loyalty with craven behaviour. He placed loyalty to an individual above loyalty to his job and the institutions that uphold our democracy.
But no Master ever misconstrues someone’s servility as worthy of respect. It is highly unlikely that Sonia Gandhi ever truly respected Singh, but she didn’t have any problem with his obvious lack of spine as long as it served her purpose. Once she was convinced that it wouldn’t, she pulled the plug.
This is the reason why both Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar, both hand-picked nominees of Manmohan Singh, had to go. With corruption and lack of governance becoming dominant themes in Indian elections—as Karnataka demonstrated recently—both ministers had become liabilities for Sonia Gandhi and her new-found love for probity. It didn’t matter to her that both were Singh appointees, and at least one of them—the law Minister—had gone out on a limb to protect his boss in the Coalgate affair by lying to the Supreme Court and helping doctor the CBI’s status report on its investigations. Not only that, since officials from the PMO were involved in the doctoring, the needle of suspicion points directly at Singh himself.
Manmohan Singh’s egregious error was that he confused his own loyalty to Sonia Gandhi as protection enough for all his indiscretions. He believed that in winking at corruption—whether it was 2G, Coalgate or Commonwealth Games—he was doing Madam a favour.
Manmohan Singh forgot that the first law political morality and loyalty: don't get caught.
By getting the law minister to flout the Supreme Court’s orders so brazenly, and by defending him till the end, Singh managed to give the impression that he had something to hide. As TN Ninan writes in Business Standard today: “The Opposition likes to attribute all this (Manmohan’s inaction in scams) to weakness in the prime minister, but that cannot explain the reluctance to take action, even when prodded, as a response to misdemeanour by a political non-entity like Ashwani Kumar, or by a lightweight like Pawan Bansal from single-Lok Sabha-seat Chandigarh. Nor can he plead the compulsions of coalition politics. Could it be ‘non-policy paralysis’? Let's face it, the more likely explanation in at least some cases is complicity."
In other words, Manmohan Singh has been caught trying to protect himself not because he was an innocent bystander, but because he was probably "complicit" in some people’s misdeeds either in the belief that Madam will stand by him or that she actually wanted him to wink at such deeds.
Manmohan Singh also forgot the second law of political morality: loyalty goes only one way, upwards to the boss. It is never downwards to the loyals.
If you get caught, it is your duty not to compromise the boss’ reputation in any way. By trying to protect Kumar and Bansal, Manmohan Singh made the Congress’ political position untenable. The opposition ruckus that prevented Parliament from discussing or passing the Food Security Bill—which Sonia Gandhi believes is her ticket to the next election victory—was probably the last straw. This was when she probably decided that Singh was no longer good at protecting her interests.
An Indian Express story, in fact, tells us why Madam may be particularly miffed with the PM’s handling of this crisis. Pawan Bansal had offered to resign nearly a week ago, but it was Manmohan Singh who held his hand – possibly because he saw Ashwani Kumar’s own position threatened by this resignation.
The tragedy of the Sonia-Manmohan relationship lies in the fact that it was an explicit separation of power from responsibility. But the relationship was always supposed to be one-way: Manmohan Singh had to carry the can for his mistakes and that of the party, but the party and the Dynasty did not have to do anything in return for this loyalty.
When it came to protecting his interests, Manmohan Singh had to fend for himself – and not make a spectacle of it.
There is a story in the Panchatantra where a King had a Monkey as his bodyguard. The King loved the Monkey and the simian was exceptionally devoted to the King. One day, while the King was sleeping, a mosquito sat on the King’s chest. The Monkey tried to swat the fly away, but the the winged creature kept landing back on the King. The angry Monkey then decided to use his sword on the mosquito and ended up killing the King when the blow landed on him.
The moral of the story: Kings should not trust foolish protectors.
Sonia Gandhi, the Queen instead of the King in this analogy, has given the tale a different ending. She has probably realised that Manmohan Singh could do further damage. She's woken up. It’s a pity Manmohan Singh did not use his instincts of loyalty to do right by the country instead of just his boss.
Whatever happens now, whether Manmohan Singh stays or goes before the next elections, the relationship with Sonia has probably undergone a change.
The Sonia-Manmohan Singh jugalbandi has gone off key. It may never be played again.