Monday, August 29, 2011

Power & Politics/ The Sunday Standard Magaine/August 28, 2011


“Success comes in cans, failure in can’ts” goes the saying. The utter collapse of the authority of the Prime Minister and his Government stems from their inability to think out of the box. The handling of Team Anna and their agitation will, perhaps, become one of the most popular case studies in ‘How to Convert an Opportunity into a Threat’. Undoubtedly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is equally, if not more, committed to strike at the roots of corruption. His track record is his great asset. But degree and pedigree don’t guarantee success in political management; instead, both have been a liability, as is evident from the bruised image of the Government and its leadership. With well-spoken and highly educated ministers like P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh and others batting for it, the Government was much better placed than Team Hazare. But a 74-year-old village-educated mass leader mauled all the wise men because they believed in their own words of wisdom rather than well-tested political tools. Instead of chanting the “Yes, we can” mantra, their chorus was, “No, they can’t do this, and that.”

To begin with, the Prime Minister and his colleagues refused to talk to Anna. Then, they gave in, sitting with his team to draft a Lokpal Bill. When Anna sat on fast to protest the Government draft, the UPA first refused to consider the Jan Lokpal Bill—only to be back on its knees within a week, pleading with Anna to give up his fast, saying it would consider his bill too. Earlier, it had ignored the entire Opposition and told Team Anna that it didn’t need them. But within a month the Government had to beg all political parties to bail it out of a mess of its own creation. Almost 75 per cent of Parliament’s time was wasted in harangues between the Government and the Opposition.

While the civil society leaders came out of the crisis smelling of roses, the Congress and the Government was still struggling to salvage its reputation and credibility. Most senior Congress leaders blame the Prime Minister and his advisers for keeping the party out of the dialogue. This is not for the first time that the Congress has faced a serious threat to the institution of the prime minister and the government. Indira Gandhi did twice: in 1974, Jai Prakash Narayan led a movement that paralysed the government. Again in 1984, Indira was confronted with the Punjab terror menace that eventually led to her assassination. Three years later, Rajiv Gandhi had to face serious challenges from within on corruption; his finance Minister V P Singh revolted on the Bofors issue which snowballed into a national protest. Though both suffered electoral humiliation, they used the party to their full advantage.

It is surprising that Manmohan hasn’t involved the party and Congress chief ministers in his battle against Team Hazare. With 13 chief ministers, the Congress could have mounted a major offensive against the Opposition and Team Anna. In the past, the strategy followed by all prime ministers facing popular dissent was to orchestrate a full-throttle campaign by issuing statements against their adversaries, organising demonstrations in their favour, and prodding opinion-makers to make powerful counter-arguments. According to Congress insiders, its earlier prime ministers could control politics because they had aides like R K Dhawan and M L Fotedar who could mobilise important Congress leaders at short notice. But retired civil servants and technocrats control Manmohan Singh’s office. When the Anna situation worsened, technocrats like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and Nandan Nilekeni, chairman of the Unique Identity Authority of India, were the ones drafted to support the Prime Minister.

This raises pertinent questions about the relationship between the Congress and the Government. With Sonia Gandhi recuperating in the US, Manmohan hasn’t been able to rally the Congress in the Government’s favour. Worse, no Congress chief minister has spoken against Hazare. On the contrary, a few young ministers and MPs have expressed their disapproval of the way the Government is dealing with the issue. Barring a couple of meetings of the core group, neither the Prime Minister nor the party thought of calling an extended meeting of the Congress Working Committee to discuss ways and means of dealing with the challenge. A section of the party believes that by depending on non-political persons, the Prime Minister has lost an opportunity to unite the entire political system. Most parties are against many of the clauses in the Jan Lokpal Bill. The Prime Minister could have turned them into allies by involving them in the dialogue process right from the beginning, and not mid-way. At the end of his seventh year in office, Manmohan is yet to learn the rules of the political game, let alone play it better than his foes. The time has come to prove that he failed not because he didn’t try. But because he tried his best.

No comments: