Classical liberalist Earnest Benn once said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” It aptly describes the current state of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. His singular success in the past few months has been looking for trouble, making an incorrect diagnosis and worse, opting for the wrong remedy. Last week, when he forced Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to distance himself from a mischievously timed but wisely worded note, the Prime Minister added yet another minister to the long list of senior colleagues who have lost their credibility. As one wicked leak after another tumbled out of the closets of power, Manmohan and his A-Team couldn’t find a mechanism to plug or prevent them from damaging the Government’s image. Instead of burying their personal or ideological differences and facing all attacks in a united fashion, the ministers resorted to the time-tested technique of passing the buck. But since so many bucks were moving around, every one of them stopped at the desk of one minister or the other.
Home Minister P Chidambaram, and Mukherjee have been the most productive and effective ministers of the UPA government. Both are members of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs which takes all crucial political and administrative decisions. Last week, they lost most of their hard-earned reputations. Corporates hastily distanced themselves. Political followers of the ministers were feeling let down. It is perhaps for the first time that a government had to defend its own home minister in court. For over a week, Manmohan chose the seemingly best option of not taking a decision, expecting the issue would become irrelevant with time. It proved disastrous. While Chidambaram’s personal integrity was being questioned, so was the motive behind the Finmin note. When the Prime Minister showed no hurry in resolving the crisis, it was left to Sonia Gandhi to crack the whip and direct the duelling duo to sort things out or face the consequences. She also conveyed to Manmohan in unequivocal terms that the mess in the Government has to be managed immediately. Within hours, they all fell in line. Since it was wholly a politico-legal issue, Manmohan deputed Law Minister Salman Khurshid and Communication Minister Kapil Sibal to help Mukherjee find a face-saving device. The Three Wise Men met in the PMO premises and drafted a statement that brought truce. But this only hastened the erosion of their credibility.
Mukherjee and Chidambaram are not the only ones who have suffered a plausibility crisis. The first casualty was Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. When anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare made fun of Pawar’s membership of the GoM dealing with black money and corruption, he instantly resigned. Instead of backing his efficient colleague, the Prime Minister accepted his resignation, signalling the victory of Civil Society and the fall of a Titan. A few weeks later, the Minister of Heavy Industries Praful Patel was accused of destroying Air India and promoting private airlines. Earlier, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was the object of ridicule for defending the Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco, pleading for favourable treatment for Pakistan. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, he read the wrong speech at an international forum. A few months later, a question mark was raised on Sibal’s credibility when he famously commented on a no-loss in the 2G scam. Minister of Science and Technology Vilasrao Deshmukh and Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde were linked to the Adarsh Society scam. More recently, all political parties in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have stopped trusting Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad for failing to deliver on the creation of a separate Telangana and fighting for the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Various sections of society are losing confidence in the UPA government because it is reneging on its promises. Industry is upset because the Cabinet succumbed to a junior minister’s pressure and delayed the new manufacturing policy that was drafted after consulting all stakeholders. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh authored a Land Acquisition Bill which, if passed, will make it almost impossible for any new industry to come up in the private sector. Powerful ministers in the presence of the Prime Minister foiled Sports Minister Ajay Maken, who is now roaming around like a wounded tiger after his attempt to rid the sports bodies of the sports mafia failed. The state of the UPA Cabinet is exactly similar to that of the Indian cricket team. All top players, including the captain, are either hurt or have lost their playing skills. Now India is led by an under-performing political skipper who leads a group of wounded colleagues. Team Manmohan is unlikely to recover because their injuries are caused mainly by their leader’s inability to provide the needed safety cover.