Monday, July 28, 2008

The Making of the Prime Minister / India Today, August 4, 2008

The Making of the Prime Minister

Once upon a time in India, there was a prime minister who was a prime-time embodiment of un-freedom. An honourable man and a dutiful servant of the system, he was made the chief administrator by the imperial decree of the Empress Dowager of 10 Janpath, whose power was absolute.

The chosen one owed his luck to the benevolence of the maximum leader, who, in a superbly choreographed melodrama of renunciation in the Central Hall of Parliament, stunned the courtiers with her "no".

In power, he was a man fettered, as the miniature Kremlin in the country's capital exercised its ideological veto whenever he attempted reform in the marketplace.

Then, with his eyes set on history but his feet still on slippery political ground, he entered into a civilian nuclear pact with the other great democracy, the United States of America. Horror, cried the commissar and a Stalinist stench enveloped Indraprastha. Kill the deal or be killed-the ultimatum was given.

And the prime minister, who was the least political at a time when politics for the comrades was pure harlotry, couldn't afford-or didn't have the mandate-to antagonise the tormentor.

He suffered in silence as the rusty anti-imperialism of the Marxists dominated the day. He wanted the deal, somehow, but he didn't have the conviction to stand by something—perhaps the only thing—he hoped would be his legacy. It was as if the meekest had inherited the office. Then one fateful day….

A triumphant prime minister
A triumphant prime minister
On July 22, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as he stood in the House with the poise of a warrior king, it was unlikely that he would have recognised the other prime minister.

More likely, Manmohan Rearmed may not even want to know that non-entity from history. It is not the time to be distracted by the past, and if there is any resemblance between the two, it is accidental-an adjective that Manmohan's biography won't be able to avoid.

At the moment, though, enthralled Manmohanites are struggling to find new adjectives to mythify his heroism. Look around and see the sweep of his triumph, even if you find it hard to discount the moral cost of the operation.

Comrade Prakash Karat, till the other day the omnipotent general secretary who fantasised about having an eternal mandate to rule India by proxy, was elsewhere, plotting a purge in his own party.

The apparatchik lost the day because of his ideological overreach. The prime minister took particular care to separate the "miscalculating" general secretary from friends like Jyoti Basu and Harkishan Singh Surjeet to emphasise the "betrayal" by a traditional ally at the Centre.

It was his day of independence from the Marxist zealots who held India to ransom. Manmohan has always had a privileged place in middle class India. On July 22, by the final act of exorcism that brought an end to the Red Evil, he has taken complete copyright of it.

Idolised in the drawing rooms of middle India and celebrated in the marketplace (the Sensex went down by 30 per cent in the run-up to the vote but it was up by 8-10 per cent during the debate), he is no longer the prisoner prime minister, at least for a while in public perception.

And surprisingly, converts and believers alike refuse to see the moral cost of Singh Shining. Shibu Soren? Those wads of currency notes in the well of the House?

Sonia and Rahul Gandhi
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi
Ah well, stuff happens in a democracy like India, so you are being asked to suspend your moral revulsion- keep it for another day. Remember, this despite the fact that it was a few unscrupulous individuals but not any party that made him the winner in a nail-biting finale.

More than a winner. The vote finally made him a conviction politician. For a long time, as a victim of Karat's anti-imperialism, it seemed he was seriously suffering from c-deficiency ("c" as in conviction).

All those days, he was prime minister but certainly not the prime mover of Indian politics. There was, of course, the Leader to take the decision, and he-the obedient, the dutiful, the diligent- was happy to be led, and shown the path marked by red flags.

Perhaps he didn't have the freedom to resign. No deal was worth the displeasure of the Leader-or the comrades who sustained the Leadership. Finally he dared-and called Karat's bluff. He had an agenda and he was ready to die for it.

"All I had asked our Left colleagues was: please allow us to go through the negotiating process and I will come to Parliament before operationalising the nuclear agreement. This simple courtesy which is essential for orderly functioning of any government worth the name, particularly with regard to the conduct of foreign policy, they were not willing to grant me. They wanted a veto over every single step of negotiations, which is not acceptable. They wanted me to behave as their bonded slave," he told the House.

Like a politician who was worth his word- and who was fully in the game. It was his first vote of confidence as prime minister, and it legitimised him as a politician who can set the agenda. He so badly needed this legitimacy test. He is the chosen prime minister, not the elected prime minister.

In a way, what happened on Tuesday was the most defining political test of his career. Beware, henceforth, the prime minister of India will be a political being. The prime minister-in-waiting was his obvious target:

"(BJP leader L.K. Advani) has described me as the weakest prime minister, a nikamma PM, and of having devalued the office of PM. To fulfill his ambitions, he has made at least three attempts to topple our Government. But on each occasion his astrologers have misled him. This pattern, I am sure, will be repeated today. At his ripe old age (this is not Rahul Gandhi speaking but Manmohan who at 75 is only five years junior to his rival), I do not expect Shri Advani to change his thinking. But for his sake and India's sake, I urge him at least to change his astrologers so that he gets more accurate predictions of things to come."

He doesn't stop there. The freshly minted politician has tasted blood and he wants to cut deeper. Advani, in the rhetorical flourish of Manmohan, was the perpetrator of almost everything that was "unforgivable" in the recent history of India.

He was the home minister who "slept when terrorists were knocking at the doors of our Parliament". He inspired the destruction of the Babri Masjid. He found "virtues in Mr Jinnah" but his party and his RSS mentors "disowned" him for that.

"Can our nation approve the conduct of a home minister who was sleeping while Gujarat was burning? Our friends in the Left Front should ponder over the company they are forced to keep because of miscalculations by their general secretary."

Pretty savage, but look at the change of tone when it comes to the Left. Still there are "friends" out there, and they are misled by the general secretary. Manmohan is getting personal, and isn't it news as it comes from the so-called gentleman prime minister?

Mulayam and Amar Singh have sunk their differences and seem to work in perfect unison
Mulayam and Amar Singh have sunk their differences and seem to work in perfect unison
Now that he is a full-fledged politician, he seems to realise that it is not all that easy to remain gentle, particularly when you are pitted against a war-scarred veteran like Advani and a ruthless apparatchik like Karat, who spends most of his waking hours in a Stalinist make-believe.

So the suddenly aggressive prime minister, aware of his stardom and growing popularity, has positioned himself as the Congress prime ministerial candidate of E-2009.

Advani, prime minister-in-waiting, is the natural enemy, and politically, a formidable one. The attack on Advani was a calculated one, and more is likely to follow as the battle of two prime ministerial candidates enters a critical phase.

In the run-up to the vote, Politician Manmohan has been at his interactive best. He met with all allies, and spoke individually to most MPs.

He not only succeeded in keeping the allies with him but ensured that no UPA MP defied the whip while NDA and other opposition parties lost 12 MPs to the ruling coalition. (Kuldeep Bishnoi of Haryana was the only rebel but he was anyway a suspended member.) The politician is at full throttle, and that means trouble.

Life as a stage-managed prime minister with no scope for political manoeuvrability must have been quite comfortable, even though occasionally humiliating.

As a political prime minister who refuses to surrender, in the next few months before the general elections, he has a lot to prove-or lose. Now that the South Block is not haunted by the Marxist spectre, the first guru of liberalisation has to deliver (see box).

The expectations are high and Manmohan would like to make the best use of his freedom. Is the freedom unlimited? Don't forget that the big-bang Tuesday was a victory with a price tag. Karat may have gone but the new oxygen suppliers are people like the Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh, now the most influential political deal maker in the ruling establishment, and the JMM leader Soren.

The traditional allies will stand by him, but it is the new bunch of friends that could cause problems
The traditional allies will stand by him, but it is the new bunch of friends that could cause problems
There is no unconditional support in politics and Manmohan will be under pressure to return the favours. He may have won the trust vote, but can he ever win the moral war?

And technically, it is still a minority government: of the 19 who saved him, 12 belong to the opposition parties. To please DMK, the Government has already brought Ram to the battleground, much to the electoral delight of the battered BJP.

The Centre, in an affidavit, told the Supreme Court on July 23 that it was Lord Ram who destroyed Ram Sethu in the Palk Strait. When gods are dragged into Indian politics, the victims are always humans, but Manmohan still doesn't have the political autonomy to tell DMK's M. Karunanidhi that simple truth.

Then what about the fate of Force Manmohan within the Congress itself? A true internationalist who strives to ensure India's rightful place in the global power structure.

A moderniser who risks his Government for a politically divisive but nationally enriching nuclear agenda. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee before him, he, too, has an idea about India, and now, he has shown the political will to stand by it.

For allies like Sharad Pawar and Amar Singh Brand Manmohan is the obvious Congress candidate for the top job in the next general elections. Really?

The party is not known for projecting anyone as prime minister candidate, unless the candidate has the right bloodline. Will the party let an icon flourish outside the dynasty?

Manmohan may invoke the visionary leadership of Sonia Gandhi and the future hope called Rahul Gandhi, but will the First Family of Indian politics cherish the prospect of a power trinity?

If the prime minister is a Congressman with a historical memory, he should know the answers. And he should be a very realistic man. The ecstasy of July 22 is neutralised by a million such hidden agonies.

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