Monday, June 7, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, June 07, 2010

LATER this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will leave behind spiralling prices, the Maoist menace, feuding cabinet ministers, Mamata’s tantrums and other niggling issues and head for Toronto, the Canadian financial capital to attend the G- 20 summit. It will be his 47th foreign tour since he first took office in May 2004 and his 12th in the first year of UPA II. With the impending trip, Manmohan will be on course to win the frequent flier award for being India’s most travelled prime minister in the last quarter century, outstripping the 46 official trips that Rajiv Gandhi made during his tenure as Prime Minister between December 1984 and December 1989.
Rajiv was young— just 40— when he set out to sell a new vision of India to the world and was a frontline participant, particularly at nuclear disarmament summits.

Since then, the Berlin Wall has collapsed, the world has changed a lot and today international summits are dominated by the likes of G- 20, G- 8, ASEAN, et al. Those who keep a regular tab on these would have noticed that Manmohan has been a regular fixture at all such high tables. He made 35 tours in his first tenure, averaging one every six and half weeks. But the frequency has picked up in his second tenure where he’s already averaged a trip every four weeks. Manmohan’s fondness for being constantly on the move is understandable. Opponents at home may accuse him of being a puppet in the hands of the party’s power centre, but on the world stage, he has been hailed as a visionary and a man who is in total control.

In fact, at the last G20 summit in Pittsburgh in the United States held at a time when the world economy was faced with its greatest challenge in more than a generation, President Barack Obama had singled out Manmohan as “ a wonderful man and a visionary who has done a tremendous job of guiding India along the path of extraordinary economic growth”. Other leaders have been no less fulsome in their praise for the prime minister who is so much in demand to address international gatherings that he is forced to send regret notes to almost half a dozen invitations every month. When he finally lays down office, we know that there is an alternative career awaiting him like so many former heads of governments.

Is it any wonder then that Manmohan would rather be somewhere in cooler climes abroad where he is the recipient of such abundant and effusive praise rather than at home where he is pilloried day in and day out by opponents whose knowledge of economics is at best fleeting? In any case, Manmohan doesn’t have much of a political role to play at home.

He finds domestic politics as complicated as some of the dyed- in- the- wool politicians would find economics, which is Manmohan’s strongpoint. On the political front, the Congress party is run from 10 Janpath. At the government level, the Union cabinet is on auto pilot with not just ministers from alliance partners but even those from the Congress taking their own decisions on all matters relating to their departments without as much as consulting the PMO. Manmohan would have loved to dabble in the finance ministry, but with Pranabda, under whom he served in the ministry more than 25 years ago, heading it once again, the prime minister doesn’t have much of a role to play there either. In fact, it is just as well that Manmohan appointed a low profile, nonassertive person like S. M. Krishna as the minister of external affairs. It gives him the space he needs to operate on the international arena.

If the latter years of Manmohan’s first term was characterised by his obsession with selling the nuclear deal, in his second term, he appears keen to be seen as someone who had the vision, the will and the courage to shape history.

The government’s initiatives on Kashmir and the resumption of talks with Pakistan are clear pointers that Manmohan wants to leave a lasting legacy. And now he heads for Toronto, knowing fully well that with a doctorate in economics, he is more qualified than the other 19 heads of states or governments with whom he will rub shoulders, to talk about the complex subject of international finance. So despite India’s puny share of world trade, when Manmohan speaks, the world will listen. How he would wish he is listened to with the same rapt attention back home.

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