Monday, June 9, 2008

Man of few mumbles / Power & Politics, Mail Today

Public speaking is something that comes as naturally to Manmohan Singh as say, the truth would, to, Bill Clinton. Though prime minister for four years, Singh hasn’t given asingle interview to the country’s media, even dispensed with the occasional Press conference that his predecessors addressed. This may have alot to do with the fact that he is not arun of the mill politicianprime minister, just an economist who stumbled on to the job because fate willed it. Ihave reason to believe that last Tuesday, just before the government finally and reluctantly hiked the prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas, Manmohan spent asleepless night. He knew the UPA allies were against the move, the Congress Party was divided over the issue, the Opposition would pounce on him and it had serious political implications for his party that, after back to back defeats, is looking at the impending Lok Sabha election with dread. That he still prevailed is proof that the economist in Manmohan, concerned about the health of public sector oil companies, decided that the price of oil was too serious amatter to be left to politicians. It is easy to understand why afew hours after the hike was announced, Manmohan took the unusual step of addressing the nation on TV. Others have done it before, but in circumstances far more grave. Pandit Nehru spoke to the people over radio after the Chinese invasion; Indira Gandhi did the same many times over while preparing the country for the war that was inevitable in 1971, Narasimha Rao went on TV to wash his hands of the Babri Masjid demolition (nobody believed him though) and Vajpayee went on TV to tell the country why his government went in for Pokhran II. But the times were different and so were the circumstances. Why then did the Prime Minister take to this route over amatter that everyone knows was economically correct, even if it was politically suicidal. That, too, aman who is reserved and who once told me that he was not the public face of the party. That was in 2003 and Ihad gone to invite the then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha to address a function organised by India Today .That same year, he was gracious enough to attend a lunch that Ihosted which was attended by many senior Congress leaders. What struck me then was that while most Congress leaders hovered around Sonia Gandhi trying to catch her attention, Singh kept to himself and as is his habit, chose to talk only when talked to. But ayear later, circumstances saw him becoming the public face of the government. Last week, Iam sure it was Singh’s decision to go before the TV cameras. If it was just another political crisis, he would have probably let the many jokers in the Cabinet go on air and make themselves look silly. As for the speech itself, did Manmohan try to portray himself as aresolute leader who, when the going got tough, was capable of taking tough decisions? Hardly. Ithink he was trying to earn sympathy, though truth be told, it’s the people who deserve all the sympathy.

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