New Delhi: A little more than a year ago, on 22 July 2008, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government won a trust vote, allowing a surprisingly assertive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to go ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
Today, as he defends or clarifies the 16 July statement released by India and Pakistan, Singh faces what many see as his toughest test in Parliament.
Last July, his party, the Congress, was united behind him.
Wrong move: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right) with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Egypt recently where he agreed to delink terrorism from the composite dialogue process. Kamal Singh/PTI
This time, there would seem to be serious misgivings within the party over Singh’s controversial concessions to Pakistan.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said the party has shown the Prime Minister his place.
“The Prime Minister will learn a lesson on how to play as a team member, not as one who takes decision unilaterally. He surprised everyone, his party, colleagues and the official who accompanied him to Egypt with his statement. He will eat crow in Parliament when he clarifies his statement.”
Singh’s challenge comes during the Congress-led UPA’s so-called honeymoon period. The government is less than 100 days old, and was sworn in after a surprisingly easy victory in the general election. The government was forced to concede to a special discussion in Parliament called by the opposition parties on the joint statement with Pakistan, in which India agreed to delink terrorism from the composite dialogue process and accepted an implicit reference to India’s role in the ongoing insurgency in Balochistan, the south-western state of Pakistan.
Analysts and Congressmen say that while the opposition parties could score some points in the debate, Singh himself may find at the end of it that his power stands diminished.
At the root of this tussle is the unique status that Singh has enjoyed: leading the Congress party in government despite not being a grass-roots politician. He was appointed after Congress president Sonia Gandhi decided against accepting the top job in 2004; and, Gandhi followed this up in the run-up to the 2009 general election by projecting Singh as the prime ministerial candidate.
If he finishes his second term, he will become the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to have done so.
It is this very status that would seem to be working against Singh. Historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha said the party’s unhappiness with Singh is natural as he is not an elected member of Parliament. “The party is not always comfortable with the Prime Minister, who is not elected. Even in the last cabinet, there were senior ministers who termed him as inefficient and (would have) liked to replace him with someone else. The party leaders claim that the mandate that the party got (this year) was a result of their hard work,” Guha said.
Differences between Singh and his party colleagues have cropped up in recent weeks over the India-Pakistan joint statement and the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), an Asian trade bloc.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office describe the joint statement that has stirred up controversy as one where Singh “exercised his authority to take a bold political step”. These officials, who work closely with Singh and do not want to be identified, say that Singh is committed to seeking out a political solution to the dispute with Pakistan, which is at least six decades old, and that he is convinced that without doing so, India will not be able to realize its potential as a global economic power.
Still, the leadership of the Congress had, until Monday, refrained from issuing a statement even as several party leaders privately aired their displeasure over Singh’s statement. Even the statement put out by Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi on 27 July, stopped short of extending the party’s unequivocal support to the Prime Minister. It merely expressed “confidence” that the Prime Minister’s explanation in Parliament on Wednesday will “set at rest all the questions, apprehensions and speculations” over the statement.
Three Congressmen, including a cabinet minister, separately claimed that the party’s effort to distance itself from the Prime Minister over the joint statement reflects Congress president Gandhi’s displeasure. The minister, who, like the Congressmen declined to be identified, added that the dissent expressed at the cabinet meeting on 24 July against the signing of FTA with Asean had the tacit approval of the party’s leadership.
Defence minister A.K. Antony, overseas Indian affairs minister Vayalar Ravi and environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh had, at that meeting, opposed the government’s move to sign FTA without addressing the concerns of Indian farmers. According to a second minister who attended the cabinet meeting and did not want to be identified, Antony fiercely opposed the pact and warned that the “political atmosphere was not at all conducive for such a move”.
Later, Congress representatives from Kerala raised the matter in the Lok Sabha seeking clarification from the government over the impact of FTA on the prices of domestic cash crops. A fourth Congressman claimed that the ministers would not have “aired their differences without the consent of the party leadership”.
Referring to Singh’s increased assertiveness, this person added: “When Dr Singh behaves like ‘the prime minister’, the party has to remind him that he cannot overlook the party.”
Still, it isn’t as if Singh doesn’t know his place, said Guha. “As far as the Prime Minister is concerned, he knows that he is there at the mercy of Sonia Gandhi and he is subordinate to Gandhi in the political hierarchy.”
No Congress leader has endorsed the 16 July joint statement and within the party, Singh is seen to have given a lease of life to the Bharatiya Janata Party which, as reported by Mint on 17 July, wasn’t being an active opposition party.
When Singh addresses the Lok Sabha on Wednesday (he is scheduled to speak in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday), he is expected to clarify that India will not resume dialogue with Islamabad unless it is satisfied with the latter’s attempts to curb terrorism emanating from its soil. He will also give an explanation to his party colleagues on 30 July during the Congress parliamentary party meeting.
“The Prime Minister is consulting party leaders before he clarifies his statement in Parliament,” said one of the Congressmen.
“He (Singh) managed to have his way in the India-US civil nuclear agreement by threatening the party that he would quit,” said Chellaney. “If he says it again, the party would say ‘go’.”