(Can Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pull India out of the woods?)
By Sanjay Jha
US President Barack Obama , facing plummeting domestic approval ratings, dived southwards in the sea-waters off the Florida coast in complete synchronicity with his falling popularity graph It did not deter him from making a symbolic statement on safety of sea waters off Miami’s white sands following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill . When General Stanley McChrystal criticised the US administration on its Afghan efforts, he was swiftly replaced. On Iraq, he kept his promised departure date, ending former US President George Bush’s blinkered , warped misadventure of GI-Joe hunting for WMDs. Obama also incurred the wrath of the conservative right wing for his determined correction of Wall Street salary excesses, which are naturally detested by pin-striped Armani suits with bloated heads. Obama may or not be re-elected depending upon America’s penchant for chick-flick aspirants such as Sarah Palin, but what he has sufficiently demonstrated is his ability to make up his own mind, even if occasionally contradictory, like the mosque controversy near Ground Zero in New York. For all his faults though, Obama has a presidential personification. That is the basic minimum expectation from political leaders world-wide. The Prime Minister of the world’s fastest-growing, most populous democracy is no exception.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is eminently likeable and downright earthy, inspiring sincerity and trustworthiness , great qualities for any political leader. However, despite an enviable head-start and a golden “ nuclear” finish in UPA-1, Singh , an intellectually enriched man, immensely erudite, seems a pedestrian shadow of his earlier avatar. In his first phase of 2004-09 people were perhaps just happy to have the Congress party back after several years in complete wilderness , after living under the deceptive charade of India Shining. Singh was the most unlikely candidate chosen under peculiar circumstances , but it was a refreshing change to have a national leader who was as familiar with dirty political skullduggery as a fish with riding a bicycle. But as 2010 nears its last quarter, Singh is not appearing as just a lame duck, but a wingless bird. There is neither fight nor flight. Is it his failing health, sudden progressive ageing or plain disillusionment with our public standards that has abruptly crippled the unassuming, humble Sardar? Between 2004 and 2010, India has further metamorphosed ( mostly in asymmetrical fashion unfortunately ) but expectations are rising exponentially. Singh has the toughest job in the world, in my opinion, but he is expected to be fully aware of its onerous challenges. Better still, most Indians sincerely wish he succeeds.
Agreed, coalition politics is treacherous business, but that’s an irrefutable political reality. Surely, Singh cannot complain about an improved Lok Sabha position in 2009 which should actually make him more battle-ready and decisive. I sometimes wonder though how an incorruptible man like Singh shares the same cabinet platform with a blatantly disingenuous DMK’s A Raja, India’s Telecom Minister ? Or an allegedly wishy-washy Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar? It is profusely confounding and must be causing Singh’s own moral conscience sleepless nights. Is Singh consequently already a thoroughly disenchanted man, fed up of the insufferable political machinations that is interspersed liberally in our public life to which he is barely accustomed ? Somewhere, is the Congress party being extremely uncharitable towards the ageing PM by making him the proverbial scapegoat? Is Singh the new Chandrasekhar, excepting that Singh has none of the latter’s power-lust?
Frankly, India honestly looks currently rudderless, and Singh’s lackluster, indecisive demeanor and missing- in- action profile has raised concerns. Serious concerns. Please remember, India is under constant international spotlight with several unfriendly neighbors closely monitoring our supreme decision-making authorities. Word spreads, and fast. When national leadership collapses or is seen as weak , it leads to the rise of several self- serving hydra- heads seeking their moments in the sun, not to mention external aggressors on sensitive boundaries and internal enemies of the state. The consequences of a phlegmatic leadership can have grave ramifications for any country. Look at Pakistan itself.
The insidious internal threat of Maoism is becoming increasingly difficult to contain because of India’s real moral dilemma— a guilty conscience. The Maoist movement may have been now hijacked by hardline aggressors on a brutal bloodbath , but is there any denying the monumental failure of our government machinery over several decades since mid -1960’s. ? Five decades later if the only option is to wage a state-war , it is a tragic confession of abject failure. There is perhaps not a single private/public land deal in India that does not have a cash component or a rigged element , and yet we are just about tabling a bill on the same. Besides corporate exploitation, it has led to several educational institutions run by well-known politicians who have acquired vast real estate at dirt prices for private gains. SEZ’s today are equally questionable and truly unsettle marginal land-owners and tribal folk with no ownership titles. So just why are we so stunned by Maoist violence under a deadly new ownership? Land-related scams abound, which if aggregated will be an astronomical embarrassment of ill-gotten riches. Sorry Mr Singh, but Maoism is not India’s biggest internal security threat. Corruption is.
The corruption saga has shockingly crippled the UPA but does the Congress party understand the grievous risk of possessing a tainted reputation? The Commonwealth Games, A Raja, Reddy brothers, land-related scams dominate daily headlines. We are talking of mind-numbing numbers such as Rs 60,000 crores as if it used toilet paper. Let us take Raja’s case, for example. By the same yardsticks that we are applying to the Pakistani cricketers of prima facie evidence and demanding immediate suspension, should not A Raja also relinquish charge until full investigations are finally done? Or for that matter, a Suresh Kalmadi? Let us see the worst-case scenario for UPA-2 if Raja is asked to pack his bags ; partner DMK will pull-out support and the wobbly UPA government will fall. Thus, we possibly head for mid-term elections. So be it. I think India needs that singular earth-shattering, unprecedented drastic action to challenge corruption , to extricate itself from the inexorable dark clouds that oppress it, instead of frightfully being chained to its inherent umbilical cord. Something extraordinary, an unexpected upheaval , a defining statement of change. A monumental risk. Like a resolute termite, India’s duplicitous morality is gradually destroying our whole moral fibre. As Gibbon said, corruption is the most infallible system of constitutional liberty. Can Singh take the raging bull of corruption by the horns?
Although all of us are sounding remarkably self-righteous on match-fixing allegations involving Pakistani cricketers in London, let us not miss the core underlying essence of it; we in India have perpetuated a culture of money talks. In fact, in India cash sings a solo blockbuster. The much-lionized Lalit Modi of IPL , serenaded with immaculate grace by one and all, is now the epitome of an India that cannot handle big money without showing-off arrogance, a large dose of self- aggrandizement, flouting basic rules, and encouraging crony capitalism. Why blame the poor traffic cop for making a quick 50 bucks? Pray, who is his role model? The now-rehabilitated Mohammad Azharuddin perhaps made a fast buck realizing that the powers that be were making large financial gains but not sharing adequately with the cricketers themselves. A victim of self-created pressures, Azhar who once appeared like a country bumpkin transformed overnight into a wannabe wanton of sorts . One of the reasons why the Pakistan Cricket Board has reacted viciously against the ICC President Sharad Pawar is because they question Pawar’s supreme command , his moral authority , given his own chequered IPL shenanigans? In fact, doesn’t India itself believe that Pawar should be more worried about 45000 MT of rotting food-grains than the perils bedeviling international cricket? We all know the answers, yet we never even raise the questions. To Pawar’s credit, he knows he is biting more than he can chew, so why has Singh yet not reduced his ministerial portfolio as logically sought by him?
Kashmir festers amidst rising disaffection, drawing India once again into the same familiar rigmarole, while Punjab militancy sees a diabolical ascension. In a sense, what India critically needs more than anything else is an in- command Singh, who assiduously shepherds a difficult slippery muddy path with good footwork and adroit balance. Instead we have a hamstrung leader, extremely well-intentioned , hugely respected for his worldly knowledge , but struggling with a difficult diverse set of issues. India needs tight governance with an iron hand sporting velvet gloves. Singh can at best offer a feeble handshake.
In the middle of all the chaos, the debate rages on about India and/or China dominating world affairs given their giant population size and fast-growing economies. . Despite being an eternal optimist, I must confess that are we falling victims to our self-delusional odysseys? With a parallel economy of USD 500 billion, the world’s largest poor, the richest 100 Indians accounting for over 25% of our GDP , wretched education and health standards, it is about time we took those Goldman Sachs 22 year-old Harvard kids produced hyperbolic country reports with a bucketful of salt. And pepper. It is one thing to wax eloquent in televised symposiums about our mighty economic size, altogether another to do the real math. . India’s problem is to ensure that development and distribution are concomitant events , not a sequential process. Singh perhaps knows that best being an esteemed economist, so why is he holding back crucial reforms? Like Tony Blair, has India’s PM pushed moderation to the extremes?
A decade earlier, the BJP paid a huge price for cheeky, casual cockiness—India Shining. Ten years later in 2014 the Congress will pay a huge price for not getting India to at least experience the first rays of sunshine. On Singh’s enervated shoulders rides the destiny and hope of a billion and more people.