A laid-back Prime Minister lacks enthusiasm and spirit

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By Neerja Chowdhury

As Manmohan Singh spoke from the ramparts of Red Fort on August 15, the overall impression left was one of a tired Prime Minister. His speech was a bit like the stringing together of every Ministry’s concern, as is done by the PMO when the President addresses the joint session of Parliament at the start of the Budget session. On Indepen-dence Day, people look for either a clarion call from the Prime Minister, or the announcement of new projects or initiatives that spell a new politics, or just words, which enthuse and lift the spirit. It is a moment which belongs entirely to the Prime Minister, when he can connect with people. Manmohan Singh went over all the expected subjects — Kashmir, Maoism, Commonwealth Games — but it was in an absolutely routine a fashion at a time when the country is hurtling from one crisis to another.

Kashmiris were following every word the Prime Minister uttered, many waiting to see if his words would lead to a new opening. Many were disappointed that he just repeated what he had said so many times before. There was not even the assurance of an impartial inquiry into the recent killing of youngsters. It was as if the Prime Minister did not have his heart in what he was saying. In recent weeks the Prime Minister has been more silent than vocal on vital issues. When he broke his silence, it came as too little too late.

When he expressed anguish at the deaths in the Valley, it was after Kashmir had been on the boil for two months and 50 youngsters had died, bringing a new generation out on the streets. That he should at that stage talk about a committee to create jobs in the beleaguered state showed the disconnect with the sentiment in the Valley. The committee was incidentally headed by none other than C. Rangarajan and it hardly helped that Rangarajan had chaired a similar committee in the past, appointed for the economic rejuvenation of Kashmir.

The consequences of the drift and the squandered opportunity in Kashmir are all the more tragic because it has happened during the tenure of a Prime Minister who has wanted to do his best to move towards a solution. This was a Prime Minister, who also knew the import of a dialogue with Pakistan, with the NATO forces beginning to move out of Afghanistan next year and the likelihood of a “good” Taliban regime being installed in Kabul.

But as things have turned out — and neither Srinagar nor Delhi can be absolved of responsibility — India will increasingly be on a sticky wicket with the rise of a new militant leadership in Kashmir (symbolized by Masarat Alam Bhatt and Asiya Andarabi), openly committed to the creation of an independent Islamic Kashmir and cleverly steering the anger and alienation in the Valley to their advantage.

It was only after the media had unearthed story after story about the Common wealth Games’ unfinished stadium and flyovers, the strange deals, drift and delays, that the Prime Minister took charge and gave the handling of the Games to a team of bureaucrats under the supervision of the Cabinet Secretary. But this happened 49 days before the Games, when a lot of water had flowed down the Yamuna, and panic had begun to set in.

The promise by the government — and by Sonia Gandhi — to bring to book those guilty of corruption after the Games is all very well. The trouble is that by then, the guilty would have made doubly sure that the paper trail, if at all there is one, disappears by the time the Games is over. The mess over the Commonwealth Games is a story which goes beyond corruption and wasteful expenditure of money. It has raised a more fundamental question, which every Indian will ask: Is there nothing we can do well as a nation?

The drift at the top is evident even when it comes to taking simple decisions, like the issue of raising the salaries of MPs. Without going into the merits or demerits of the move, clearly, it could not have come at a worse time, when food prices showed no signs of coming down and the government was making high sounding noises about the need for “fiscal discipline.” That apart, a Bill normally comes before the Cabinet after due diligence is done. First the Cabinet decided to put it on hold and three days later, it gave its go ahead, once again showing confusion at the top levels of government.

The initial indecision gave a handle to Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav to hijack the parliamentary agenda and grab center stage, as they pitched for a 500 percent increase. In what was the theatre of the absurd, Lalu went to the extent of staging a “mock Parliament” inside the House (like children do in their schools), trivializing parliamentary functioning, without the government doing anything to stop it.

Expressing disappointment with the Prime Minister’s August 15 speech, a Kashmiri woman had remarked that Manmohan Singh could be bold when he wanted to be. He had, after all, staked his kursi on the Indo-US nuclear Bill.

It was there for all to see that the issue on which the Prime Minister has really bestirred himself of late is the nuclear liability Bill, which Singh would like, passed before US President Barack Obama comes to India in November. The UPA managers displayed a more than usual will to get the BJP to play along.

It is not clear whether the “nuclear” issues and “growth” figures are high priority for the Prime Minister because he enjoys greater freedom in these areas, given the economic-versus-political division of responsibilities between him and Sonia Gandhi, or it is because of other factors.

The unusual coalitional model inside the Congress, of the Prime Minister handling economics and Sonia Gandhi taking decisions on the political front, worked well during UPA-I. But it seems to be backfiring in UPA-II, for the simple reason that there are graver challenges emerging and all of them require interventions which cannot be devoid of “political” content. They require the Congress Party — and the UPA — to be on the same page, which has not  been happening. Mamata’s Banerjee’s differences with the UPA are handling of the Maoist challenge is only one case in point.

Given the drift at the top, it is hardly surprising that there has been a free for all, with Ministers increasingly handling their departments as fiefdoms which brook no interference, and others taking potshots at each other, without any fear of being held to account.

Is the government then losing its grip? Certainly despondency and anger are setting in among the urban middle class on a host of issues. While there is a growing tentativeness about the Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi too is not reportedly as hands-on as she was in UPA-I. India’s peripheries — be it Kashmir or Manipur with its economic blockade — are more unsettled today than they have been in the recent past. Its heartland is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the Naxal onslaught. The situation calls for the Prime Minister to lead from the front.
Courtesy: Express Buzz

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