Monday, August 8, 2011

Power & Politics/The Sunday Standard Magazine/August 07, 2011

Middle Class Betrayal Marks
Brand Manmohan Meltdown

It takes decades of dedicated performance to create a credible brand. But it takes just a minor marketing move to destroy it in the market place. Seven years ago, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi launched Brand Manmohan to regain its lost political territory. She was elected the leader of the UPA and could easily have become the prime minister. But she chose not to. Her advisers and aides convinced her about the marketability of Manmohan. He was clean. He was from a minority community that is hostile to the Congress. He was an internationally recognised economist. Finally, he had no baggage or stink in his backyard. During the next seven years, Brand Manmohan captured the imagination of the Indian middle class. He was seen as man of the moment and momentum. Under him, the nation’s Gross National Product grew at a yearly average of 8 per cent. India became the world’s most attractive foreign investment destination. The number of homegrown millionaires and billionaires grew by 1,000 per cent. Manmohan won the US for India in return for a generously lucrative Nuclear Civil Energy deal. He also delivered rich political dividends for the Congress, which broke its 20-year-old record by winning 206 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Manmohan came to be considered the most effective panacea for all the ailments that plagued India.

Come 2011. India’s once-fastest selling political brand is hardly visible. Even his own party is reluctant to use him for promoting its interests. Manmohan has become a subject of hatred and contempt on a large number of social media platforms. A leaderless and directionless Opposition has suddenly found a soft target in him. For the past few months, it is the Prime Minister, and not the Congress party, who is being blamed for what is wrong in the government and the country—if A Raja has looted the treasury, the blame lies at the Prime Minister’s doorstep; if Suresh Kalmadi indulged in worst kind of skullduggery during the Commonwealth Games, it is the PMO that should own up the responsibility; if the NTRO violated financial rules and ordered inferior equipment, the fault lies with the Prime Minister who ignored the early warnings. The Prime Minister, who could once demolish any attack on his integrity with a mere gesture, now needs a Group of Ministers to defend him. His silence is more lethal than his few words.

Until a few years ago, his interaction with the media would generate good news and yield a positive projection of the premier. Now, when he meets even a chosen few journalists, he gets into trouble for speaking his mind. Manmohan was a Prime Minister for whose audience the mightiest of corporate leaders would once wait for months; today they would much rather be in the company of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Barring a few loyal ministers, most Congress leaders are unwilling to take up cudgels on the Prime Minister’s behalf.

Ironically, it is not the performance of Manmohan Singh’s government that is being questioned. On most parameters, UPA II is doing remarkably well. While inflation is a cause for concern, all social sectors are booming. India has a better healthcare system now, a much more effective poverty alleviation mechanism, political stability and is relatively safer security-wise. It is not for non-performance that the Prime Minister is under attack for. The fall of a political leader of stature is reflected by the comments and cartoons made on his or her personality. For the past few weeks, the regional media is full of cartoons making fun of the Prime Minister as a leader who fiddled as Rome burned. The Congress can afford to ignore the damage to his reputation in rural areas, as Manmohan isn’t its mascot in BPL India. It is the urban elite and the middle class that seem to have lost faith in Manmohan’s skills and virtues. Corporate India and the unscrupulous middle class are now at the forefront of a war against Manmohan Singh. But they are the ones who speak against corruption in India at international fora and support, encourage and participate in the public movements led by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. In fact, they are the beneficiaries of the liberalisation (and the scams that followed) which Manmohan Singh, the father of economic reforms, started 20 years ago.

Last week, when the Prime Minister was facing the most vicious and personalised of attacks on his integrity from the Opposition and the media, the chorus that joined in was made up of a large number of his own liberal and rich constituencies—that provide fodder to seminars, symposiums and round tables—in order to save their interests and empires. They make snide remarks about the premier and his style of governance—Manmohan has lost it; he is simply not there. Remarks like “He is not taking interest in governance; he is not independent” are heard quite often in the corridors of power and at dinner parties in Mumbai and New Delhi. The same class had expressed similar sentiments in 1996 when the fair weathercocks seemed sure that Brand Manmohan was on the wane.

The class that promoted Brand M is now his worst enemy, as it doesn’t see any future in him. The fault for trusting those who look for what one can do for them and not for the country lies with the Prime Minister alone. With his unblemished personal integrity, Manmohan Singh is fighting a lonely battle to retain his acceptability and marketability. But his promoters and party are certainly looking at another brand that can retain the market for them.

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