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Moment of reckoning for the prime minister

Moment of reckoning for the prime minister
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First Published: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 55 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 55 PM IST
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is arguably the quietest prime minister we have ever had, barring short-lived prime ministers like I.K. Gujral. We do not see or hear him often. Opposition leaders have described Manmohan Singh as the weakest prime minister ever. I guess that many people in the countryside are not even aware that he is the incumbent prime minister. Opinion polls have shown that people believe that the real authority vests with Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.
At a time when its confidence and political stock is at the lowest, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is confronted with a now-or-never decision on the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal in the face of all-round opposition from a section of the Congress party and the UPA’s allies, who prefer junking the deal rather than face early elections. The allies fear rough electoral weather and would like to be on the right side of the Left in the hope of returning to power after the next general election.
The Left calculation
By pushing the deal, without considering the supporting Left parties’ pathological obsession against any strategic partnership with the US, the Prime Minister exhibited lack of political sagacity. While he could push through path-breaking economic reforms as the finance minister in the government headed by the politically shrewd P.V. Narasimha Rao in the 1990s that was also critically dependent on support of the Left parties, he has failed to manage the Left parties as successfully as his former prime minister. (The difference may be that the CPM is now led by steely Prakash Karat as its general secretary, compared with its then leader, the mellow Harkishen Singh Surjeet.)
Having pitched the deal as a panacea to India’s problems and describing its opponents as enemies of the nation, when the time has come to show the political will to push through the deal irrespective of political consequences, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi seem to be dithering on complex political calculations.
Poll-weary
No party wants early elections.
We have a peculiar situation now. There are some parties which want the Indo-US nuclear deal, while others don’t. But, paradoxically, no party wants an imminent election to the Lok Sabha, although the general elections is scheduled only a few months away.
Thanks to the raging inflation and a series of electoral reverses, the Congress party and its UPA allies fear a rout if elections are held now. Thus, a large section of the UPA prefers continuing in power right till the end, believing that it is foolhardy to give up power, which it is unlikely to regain after the polls.
The Left parties, fresh from recent losses in panchayat polls in West Bengal, are also poll-weary. The Samajwadi Party with its block of 39 members of Parliament feels threatened by the growing influence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.
The principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is also unprepared to face polls at this juncture. It needs time to rope in new allies in a number of key states without which its claims of returning to power after the next elections will sound hollow. It is also anxious and unsure of its prospects in assembly polls to five states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, and Jammu and Kashmir) later this year; it is the ruling party in the first three states.
The BJP’s calculation is that the issue of inflation will benefit it immensely in polls. If the nuclear deal and a UPA-Left rift result in an early election, the UPA will be forced to make the nuclear deal a key electoral issue to divert voters’ attention from rising prices and it will attempt to paint the BJP with the same brush as the Left parties. The BJP and the Left will oppose the deal, though for entirely different reasons. Young, educated middle-class Indians consider strengthening of ties with the US as a path to prosperity. As they are a key support block for the BJP, early elections in which the nuclear deal is a significant issue would prove to be a headache for the party which would be hard pressed to explain reasons for opposing the deal.
Prime Minister Singh has reportedly once again threatened to resign if he is not allowed to sign the nuke deal.
Here is a piece of unsolicited advice to the Prime Minister: you have had an eventful term as the country’s finance minister. Your tenure as the Prime Minister has been eminently forgettable, for there is precious little that can be hailed as a lasting achievement, despite the Bharat Nirman and National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. As you are personally committed to the deal, why not persist and ensure that your authority prevails?
If you can’t, is the office so irresistible and tempting that even a good non-politician like you cannot renounce it?
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at thebottomline@livemint.com.
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First Published: Sun, Jun 22 2008. 11 55 PM IST