A slew of articles have appeared recently in foreign press, including Time Magazine, Foreign Affairs and The Economist, on the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s leadership abilities. After the departure of Pranab Mukherjee from the finance ministry, the PM has taken over his original job. He is credited for having fathered the economic liberalisation process in India as finance minister in the 1990s. However, somewhere between the criticism and counter-criticism and the rhetoric on good and bad economics, people seem to have missed the original reason for the mess in the Singh government. One of the first agencies to criticise the government was Standard and Poor’s (S&P), which pointed out 10 reasons for a possible downgrading of India’s credit ratings. Five of these reasons were clearly political: divided leadership, Sonia Gandhi holding no cabinet position, an unelected PM who has no political base, his limited influence over the cabinet, and the Congress party being divided on economic policies.
The problem started in 2004 when Congress President Sonia Gandhi did not accept the popular mandate of the general election. She claimed that her inner voice told her to stay away from heading the largest democracy of the world. What followed was the biggest travesty of democracy in India. Singh, a technocrat who has never won a direct election, was appointed PM by Gandhi. Many in the Congress grudgingly accepted her decision. Gandhi didn’t face any threat from Singh, an apolitical creature. An informal system was put in place under which Singh was supposed to run the government and Gandhi was supposed to look after the politics of governance. But that was not to be an easy affair.
The first strike against Singh’s leadership came from the National Advisory Council. A body headed by Gandhi was formed, which advised the PM about key social initiatives. Key legislations like the Right to Information and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were pushed through parliament by Gandhi. It is well known within government circles that neither Singh nor his economic team are keen on such expensive social programmes.
Meanwhile, Singh, father of India’s liberalisation, struggled with key economic reforms. During his first tenure, Singh had numerous face-offs with his biggest allies: the leftist parties. Almost always he backed off to save his government. The only time he showed guts and leadership was over the nuclear deal with the US. The party members were reportedly not too keen about the deal but Gandhi stood by him. The Left abandoned him but he survived with the help of regional parties. He returned to power with greater numbers in 2009. Middle-class India argued that he won because he showed leadership during the nuclear deal debate. Rural India claimed that his government got more votes because Gandhi pushed through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
The second tenure has turned out to be even more unstable. Gandhi, who is reportedly unwell, has been involved less and less in party affairs. She has tried to promote her son and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi, to lead the party. Rahul has repeatedly failed to prove himself, including his failure in the Uttar Pradesh elections. Such is the obsession of Congress with the Family that despite the shameful loss in UP, the clamour for Rahul to take over the government has only increased. Even PM Singh has been requesting him to either take over or at least become a cabinet minister. Sycophancy is not a new disease among Congressmen but in this case, it has reached new heights.
Within the government, senior leaders — most of whom have been indirectly elected and do not have a mass political base — are now eyeing the top spot. In terms of numbers, the government is more stable than it was during its first term but when it comes to leadership, it has absolutely none. The crisis in the Singh government is not about Manmohan Singh but about the leadership struggle within the Congress party. Singh was never the man for the office. The mandate accorded to Congress was a mandate for Sonia Gandhi.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2012.