Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, March 08, 2010

IF YOU think work is bogging you down, that you are left with no time to indulge in your favourite pastimes, spare a thought for the good doctor. Rarely does the Prime Minister, any prime minister for that matter, spend almost the entire day in Parliament. But Dr Manmohan Singh did it twice last week, listening to speeches from MPs on both sides of the aisles as he prepared to reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in both houses of Parliament.

Last Friday, Manmohan skipped his usual home lunch and hung on in Parliament. When it was his turn to speak, with uncharacteristic aggression, he disarmed his foes and surprised his friends. His two interventions in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha reflected his new avatar as a politician inferior to none.

The acerbic and often sarcastic nature of his discourses ensured that the image of him as a prime minister without any political power was a thing of the past. The normally soft spoken Singh proved beyond doubt that after nearly six years in the hot seat, he has developed a hide thick enough to engage in ill- tempered political debates with the likes of L. K. Advani, M. M. Joshi, Sushma Swaraj or Sitaram Yechury. In fact, the Congress couldn’t have found a better tactician to take them on.

And he did it with panache. Advani’s poisonous barbs at the Prime Minister’s “ adventurous diplomacy” were enough provocation to make the Prime Minister’s response equally lethal. He threw his weight around, played to the gallery, paused for the resounding applause and went on to deal a few killer blows. When the opposition leader quoted a long article from an American magazine to suggest that “ clandestine efforts were on under US pressure to hammer out a pact on Kashmir” and demanded that Parliament be kept in the loop, Manmohan retorted: “ First you tell me how many times did Jaswant Singh ( BJP foreign minister) hold secret negotiations and talks with Strobe Talbott ( former US deputy secretary of state)? And how many times did he come and explain what was going on behind the scenes to Parliament?” For the past six years, the opposition has seen Manmohan as a leader without political power, given the task of leading a team chosen by someone else.

He was perceived as a ruler who wasn’t free to formulate policies that have a domestic political fallout. But the reiteration of his resolve to pursue long term policies vis- a- vis Pakistan, China, fiscal discipline and Maoists ignoring the political damage L. K. Advani these may cause at home in the short term proves just one thing: the party stands solidly behind him. So be it the privatisation of mines, the large scale retrenchment in the Communications Department, the decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan or even the withdrawal of petroleum subsidies, he has managed to put to rest all speculation that the party will hound him into reversing the policies.

As usual, he was dressed in his trademark kurta pyjama jacket and sky blue turban, but it was clear he had shed the financial wizard’s robes as his speeches centred more around politics than economics. Thanks to the rare unity among the opposition benches, not seen in a long long while, Advani got massive applause, but it was Manmohan who had the last word. If his demeanour is any indication, Manmohan appears to have dropped his earlier decision to let his work do the talk. Now he chooses to brag about his work and even his trusted people and ministers are surprised over Singh’s newly discovered strategy of offence being the best form of defence. In his second term, the Prime Minister has been asserting his ideology and imposing his chosen individuals on the system.

Without tinkering or interfering with the political hierarchy, Singh drafted retired civil servants and corporate leaders and technocrats in key policy panels and bodies to lay the blueprint for future economic and political governance. He has drafted over 50 retired civil servants and business leaders to advise the government on issues varying from climate change to security to infrastructure.

You wouldn’t see their pictures in the newspaper pages, but most of them are going about their jobs in a very quiet manner. And though they are mostly non- political, most of them are better connected politically than many of the leading Congress leaders. Even if they deliver and none else does, Manmohan would stand vindicated.

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