India’s prime minister rarely speaks to reporters, but on Monday he said he wasn’t about to retire from office yet.
Manmohan Singh was speaking in defence of the performance of his coalition. The government completes the first year of its second term this week. The next election is four years away. So why was Singh asked about retirement? Because many are convinced that his role is to warm the seat for Rahul Gandhi who, 40 this year, is thought to be ready to lead India.
If this is so, Singh could be a seatwarmer on an epic scale because he’s just finished six years in the job.
Neither Rahul nor his mother Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful person, has ever spoken of this impending takeover, but even so the talk persists. This doubtless embarrasses the prime minister, and those who think he’s a good leader, but in India the question of when a Gandhi will become prime minister is always ripe to be asked because the family is seen as a dynasty of hereditary rulers.
Another reason a change is appealing to our media is that Singh is not a charismatic leader. In fact, he’s quite boring. His replies are guarded most times. This has partly to do with the asinine questioning of Indian journalists.
When he speaks to foreign journalists who ask objective questions, he sparkles. Two interviews whose transcripts are available on the internet, one with Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth and another with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, will demonstrate this.
But most of Singh’s boringness has to do with the fact that he is a scholarly intellectual. He rarely displays emotion and if he feels passion, as he surely does, one cannot see it. He does not offer anger, which the media would love to see, but only nuance.
On Pakistan, he says that the immediate problem is that the trust deficit needs to be reduced between the two nations. This is a good way of framing the problem, because it is true that both nations believe that the other is not being entirely honest about the primary issue so far as that nation is concerned: terrorism for India and Kashmir for Pakistan.
This nuance runs through the whole of Singh’s term as leader of India.
Under Singh and Sonia, the Congress has focused on social sector legislation, introducing laws that attack corruption, rural poverty and discrimination against women. The last item was approached through reservation of seats for women in parliament (something Pakistan has already done under Pervez Musharraf).
Since the urban media is not interested in things like rural poverty, it has found the government lacking in lustre. But the media will probably be disappointed if Rahul does become prime minister. This is because he is actually as cautious as Singh is. Rahul has shown himself to be willing to learn, humble and, importantly, nuanced. His understanding of India is superior to those who round up on him angrily because of his background as his many meetings with them show.
People of the quality of Bill Gates (who spent a day with him in Bihar) and Britain’s David Miliband (who slept a night in a Dalit woman’s hut with Rahul) think highly of him. He will make a firstrate leader if he ever becomes the prime minister. But that will have to wait.
Singh is already 78, and is unlikely to become prime minister again, once the remaining four years of this term end. But for that period, he is the best man to run this country, even if he may seem to be the most boring one.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 26th, 2010.
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