Manmohan Singh’s repeated denials about the humungous corruption in his backyard are beginning to sound like bad jokes.
A brilliant economist and the man who in the early 1990s helped India move away from a lazy, red-tape bound licence raj regime, Singh is shockingly ineffective today.
Once credited with path-breaking economic reforms that took the nation towards impressive growth, the Prime Minister today appears week-kneed and tempted to bury himself in a pile of excuses.
In recent weeks, he has often brushed aside some of the horrifying scams – especially the 2G telecoms spectrum in 2008 — that have dogged India, by quipping that the people were not really bothered by them.
After all, his Congress Party was voted back to power in 2009 after the scams had surfaced.
One feels sorry that Singh ought to be saying this.
He told the media on his way back from New York last week: “The issues on which the United Progressive Alliance Government (headed by the Congress) is now being judged date back to 2006 or so … after which the people have voted in support of our performance. This is why I suspect that there is some other agenda at work”.
Maybe he was referring to the country’s largest opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), trying to bring down his government.
Unfortunately, the BJP itself is embroiled in a power struggle that is seeing the likes of LK Advani, Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj eying the prime ministerial “gaddi” post 2014, when India will elect a new parliament.
So, the BJP seems hardly prepared to face the electorate in the event of elections taking place before 2014.
Singh’s seeming attempt at diverting the attention of angry voters from real issues is hardly the kind of thing one would expect from a man like him, who enjoys a high stature.
The 2G scam, which has reportedly made India’s exchequer poorer by as much as US$40 billion (the figure is disputed by some), has seen former telecoms minister and member of Singh’s cabinet, A Raja, in jail for many months. His aide committed suicide or so we were officially told.
A Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Member of Parliament and daughter of Tamil Nadu’s previous Chief Minister, MK Karunanidhi, is also in prison, as an accused in the scam. Both she and Raja belong to the DMK.
Open row in Congress
Singh’s repeated denials about the humungous corruption in his backyard are beginning to sound like bad jokes. For a long time, he saw no 2G scam at all, letting his spokesmen affirm and reaffirm that there had been no loss at all.
Lately, the nation has been infuriated by an open row between two of Singh’s senior cabinet ministers, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Both are from the Congress.
Everybody in India knows that these two men, Goliaths in their own right and brilliantly shrewd, are really rivals. Their ambitions to become the Prime Minister are not exactly rumours.
Both these men have a solid base: Mukherjee from West Bengal is said to have angled for the big post in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh guards (angry over her Operation Blue Star operation in which the security forces entered the sacred-to-Sikhs Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh militants). But the Congress chose Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son.
In 2004, Sonia Gandhi, who has been heading the Congress as party president, preferred a more docile Singh to an independent-minded Mukherjee. He lost out a second time, and probably hopes that he might just about be lucky on the third occasion.
Chidambaram is as strong willed as Mukherjee, and had an excellent record as finance minister in Singh’s first tenure as Prime Minister from 2004 to 2009. However in 2008, Chidambaram was asked to look after the home ministry after a series of terror attacks, and Mukherjee was given finance.
This swap appears to have triggered a rivalry between the two. Early this year, Chidambaram criticised Mukherjee for letting the inflation run away.
There was also an argument over the creation of a new state, Telangana. In this case, Mukherjee was asked to deal with the demand for Telangana, not Chidambaram. The Telangana issue was actually Chidambaram’s responsibility.
Weak Prime Minister
The latest quarrel between them related to a note issued by the finance ministry which allegedly said that Chidambaram (photo) did not do enough to stop Raja from carrying out his questionable sale of 2G telecoms licences in 2008.
The note came into the public domain through the Right To Information Act.
In the end, the two ministers apparently patched up, probably under instructions from the party leadership.
They made a public appearance before the media. Mukherjee said the note did not have anything against Chidambaram. The home minister, in turn, added that the matter was closed.
But, India was watching these Goliaths on television. They looked absolutely sullen, and the nation could easily see that they had been forced to make a joint appearance and declaration.
Sadly, this is a time when India — facing high prices, debilitating financial grafts and a scare that its manufacturing industry is under attack from China — must have a strong Prime Minister.
Manmohan Singh hardly seems to fit the bill.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.