Record-breaking achievements serve two purposes. One, they provide an occasion to celebrate and acknowledge the record holder. Two, they serve as an opportunity to reflect on the road ahead. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s achievement of becoming the third longest serving prime minister in Indian history should be viewed in this context.
First off, it is a singular achievement, especially given his transition from a technocrat to the country’s premier executive. It has not been easy and, more importantly, Singh has, through the transition, managed to preserve his squeaky clean image. It is also significant that he has managed this while being a member of the Congress party—where almost anyone who matters covets the top job.
However, the achievement has come at a cost. Singh’s non-controversial and apolitical background helped him become prime minister after Congress president Sonia Gandhi declined the job in 2004. Politically, however, Gandhi continued to call the shots, whether it was indirectly or through the offices of the National Advisory Council. Credit for all politically big-ticket decisions of the government—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, women’s reservation, the Right to Information Act and the proposed Food Security Act—has accrued to Gandhi. The single moment in the last six years where Singh demonstrated his mettle was when he put the government’s survival on the line in an effort to muster parliamentary support for the civil nuclear deal with the US.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
It is not surprising, then, given this artificial division of powers, that Singh has preferred to play it safe. This is a strategy that works perfectly when things are doing fine. The first tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was relatively smooth; but somewhere towards the end of that term, the global economy suffered an unprecedented meltdown, food prices started rising, and Mumbai was the target of an audacious and horrific terrorist attack. The challenges have only intensified in the second tenure of the UPA, with unwarranted distractions such as the controversies surrounding the staging of the Commonwealth Games beginning to tarnish the government’s image. All this has left it vulnerable, giving second wind to an otherwise depleted Opposition. Singh looks a shadow of his former self: It is difficult to imagine that he is the same man who concluded his epoch budget speech in 1991 with Victor Hugo’s immortal lines: “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Both Singh and the Congress would do well to reflect on these as they prepare for the remainder of the UPA’s second continuous stint in power.
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