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Can he hide from himself?

Can he hide from himself?

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 18, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/170285/Can-he-hide-from-himself.html

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's serial outbursts over the past week were remarkable not for what he said but why he said it. The 'war of words', to use journalism's oldest chestnut, began when the BJP categorised Mr Singh as a 'night watchman' and a 'caretaker', not the UPA Government's real leader. Mr LK Advani called him the "weakest Prime Minister" in Indian history and challenged him to a debate on governance issues.

True, the BJP's criticism was harsh, but it was not remarkably different from the everyday rhetoric of electoral politics. The party's slogan for the 2009 general election centres on the theme of a 'majboot neta' (strong leader) and to posit the rival candidate as 'majboor' (weak and vulnerable) was a pun only to be expected.

Initially, Mr Singh seemed to take it in his stride. He turned down the idea of a debate with Mr Advani, saying he was not as good a public speaker as the BJP leader. It was a clever, semi-sarcastic line, suggesting Mr Advani was a talker but Mr Singh was a doer.

The matter could have died down there but, as the BJP hammered away with its "weak Prime Minister" slogan, something inside Mr Singh snapped. His response began to get progressively vituperative and almost hysterical. At times, and this was unusual for Mr Singh, he resorted to non sequiturs and factual inconsistencies.

More substantively, Mr Singh began a personal assault on Mr Advani. He called him an "Iron Man" who "melted" under pressure, who couldn't take on terrorism as India's Home Minister, who was "weeping in a corner" when the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi structure was demolished. Next, the Congress leadership claimed that, as Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not trust Mr Advani.

Finally, Mr Singh made his most dramatic statement on April 15, before a group of editors: "Any serious observer knows my remarks on Mr Advani are true. I owe it to myself and to the people of India to show where the shoe pinches. Enough is enough."

A facile explanation of all this would be to say, as some commentators have, that Mr Singh has finally come of age as a politician, that he has learnt the ways of the world and so on. This is nonsense. To be fair to the man, he is not given to wildcat exclamations and bitter, perverse words.

Like a good bureaucrat, Mr Singh is an artful survivor, perhaps the most accomplished in the labyrinths of Lutyens' Delhi. He has spent a career keeping mum when the boss is angry; retreating when the situation is not favourable; getting his way when it is. He does not believe in frontal combat. That is his strength as much as his failing.

In 2007-08, at the height of the India-United States nuclear agreement crisis, the Left and its fellow travellers often suggested Mr Singh was an American agent. His alleged devotion to the British Empire and to the American world order has also been commented upon by Mr Prakash Karat, the CPI(M) general secretary, in recent days.

None of this caused Mr Singh to take things personally. When he gave his famous interview to The Telegraph in August 2007, he was remarkably measured, pointing out that, "I don't get angry, I don't want to use harsh words." He was only arguing for an "honourable deal", he said, that would expand "India's development options, particularly in regard to energy security and environmental protection and … (wouldn't) affect our ability to pursue our nuclear weapons programme".

There was no "enough is enough". The shoe was not pinching because Communist spokespersons were calling the Prime Minister an American lackey. Yet, it did when the BJP called him "weak". Why? It cannot just be because Mr Singh knows there may be a Congress-Left tie-up after the election.

The answer is more complex and altogether simpler: It is because the BJP has spoken the truth. When the Communists accused Mr Singh of being an American stooge, he could shrug it off; he knew - and India knew - the Communists were talking rubbish. When the BJP accuses Mr Singh of being a weak Prime Minister, he cannot shrug it off; he knows - and India knows - the BJP is right.

Mr Singh's reputation is dear to him. He would not like to be reminded that he was not even found weeping in a corner when Sikhs were slaughtered on the streets of Delhi in October-November 1984. He did not take a stand.

Yet, even he cannot escape the feeling that he leaves his country in a mood of greater grimness and pessimism than when he became Prime Minister in 2004. His party may choose to blame it on the global economic slowdown but Mr Singh is intelligent enough to know that is only a fraction of the cause.

As Finance Minister in the 1990s, Mr Singh advocated fiscal prudence; as Prime Minister, he has watched helplessly as his Government has spent its way into a mess. On internal security, he may attack the BJP's Kandahar 'surrender' but he knows the Islamist threat perception that is the UPA's legacy is unprecedented. His administration has left India politically and legally crippled in the face of the terror challenge. Never mind the Press conference bravado.

Finally, there is the question of the Prime Minister's trust. Can Mr Singh put his hand to the Granth Sahib and swear he trusted his Telecom Minister, his Highways Minister, his former Health Minister, his former Home Minister or even the senior Cabinet Minister who was deputed to negotiate with the Left on the nuclear issue and who, according to leaks from Mr Singh's own PMO, was doing a double deal?

Mr Singh is trapped. He cannot look into the mirror and recognise the man he once was. He cheats his conscience. He can only squirm as the Gandhi inheritors compare him to the Mahatma and call him "Sher-e-Punjab". His party, his coalition and his political sponsors have made a laughing stock of him. After the election, he fears he will be dumped as expendable.

There is no point criticising Mr Singh. He deserves a sentiment far more devastating: pity.

(malikashok@gmail.com)


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