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The PM paradox

The PM paradox

Author: Balbir K. Punj
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: April 25, 2009
URL: http://www.asianage.com/presentation/leftnavigation/opinion/op-ed/the-pm-paradox.aspx

When the Congress' top three leaders make the BJP leader L.K. Advani's finding on their Prime Minister the centre of their verbal duel with their main opposition party it is more likely to be a case of their guilt gnawing at their conscience. If their present Prime Minster, who is also their declared personage to lead the government in case the party is back in power after these elections, is strong enough for the post, the simple question is why is the Congress not fielding him in any of the constituencies across the country for the Lok Sabha?

After all, both Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao were not members of the Lok Sabha when they first became Prime Minster but soon after they went through this test by fire they got elected to the Lok Sabha. In Narasimha Rao's case the challenge was even more, he had moved out of active politics by 1991 when the general elections took place, when he was not even a candidate. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination pitch-forked him into the leadership role. But since his own party had not gained a majority, getting elected to the Lower House was not a cakewalk for him.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a history of being in power without getting directly elected. In 1991, when Narasimha Rao invited him to take over the finance portfolio, he was not a member of either House. Though the Congress Party parades the fact that he is a Sikh, neither Narasimha Rao nor the present leadership has got him even into the Rajya Sabha through Punjab. In 1991, a place was found for him through Assam. But when he tried to enter the Lok Sabha in 1999 from an urban constituency of Delhi, his reputation as the father of economic reforms and eminent economist did not stand him in good stead. He lost.

The Congress won a majority in Punjab in the 2002 Assembly elections, yet Dr Singh himself and his party did not dare to put him into the Rajya Sabha through that state. Even during the five years that he has been the Prime Minster, the party chose to play safe and again got him in through Assam. Was that deliberate to keep him weak lest he gets elected directly and challenges the family's heirloom?

That Dr Singh has no history of getting directly elected even though he is the leader of the government itself proclaims his weakness. In 2004, when he became the Prime Minster, it was not through the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) going ga-ga over him. In fact, it is on record that when the CPP got to know that Mrs Sonia Gandhi was not taking up the government's leadership but wanted Dr Singh in her place, there was a virtual rebellion in the CPP and the arm twisting she had to do to get Dr Singh accepted was in all the newspapers of the day. That itself showed what support he had in the party whose government he was supposed to lead.

At no time in the past has the CPP chosen a nominee as the Prime Minster. Even when Narasimha Rao was chosen in 1991, he quickly showed who was the real boss and his authority was not questioned till the 1996 elections. A defeated and dejected leader, facing several court cases for corruption was forsaken by the Congress subsequently.

Dr Singh has been underlining the weakness of his own position as the Prime Minster from day one to day now that he has been in power. Mr Advani was only bringing this basic weakness of Dr Singh's position as the Prime Minster to the public's notice.

Even if it was a necessity for the Congress president to get on with a nominee Prime Minster in 2004, the question arises why is the party hesitant to end this diarchy between the ruling party president and the Prime Minster even after five years?

Scenes of officials and politicians bypassing Dr Singh and pilgrimaging to 10 Janpath to get their wishes fulfilled were enacted almost everyday during the past five years, each such event underlining that the real power is not with the Prime Minster.

This daily ritual of seeking Mrs Sonia Gandhi's approval, by worthies including Union ministers, was all over our TV screens. What was the message these scenes were beaming? Some critics who are aware of how that one family which "owns" the Congress tends to project its power would say that this display was deliberate, meant to underline the reality of power in the government led by the Congress. So the weakness of the Prime Minster was there for all to see, whether Mr Advani refers to it or not.

And then, Dr Singh himself proclaimed his weakness as Prime Minster. In 2008, when the UPA government managed to survive the Prakash Karat missile aimed at the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and the Left withdrew support, Dr Singh expressed great relief, confessing that he was now released from being a slave of the Left that he had been for the last four years! Surely one who leads the government of this vast and most populous country cannot be a "slave" of anyone. But here is its present Prime Minister, a self-confessed slave of the Left for four out of the five years he was its leader.

And yet, the same Dr Singh now says that he would welcome the same Left's support in the formation of the next government. That is, he welcomes this slavery after having groaned under it for four years! How much can people trust such a person to lead the country once again? Only a weak political figure could manage to make such a statement. Or maybe, the Congress is convinced of shrinking after this election and is, therefore, ready to welcome that very Left which ditched them, merely to return to power.

It would be difficult for Dr Singh, his party's president and the "heir apparent" to deny a fundamental demand of our parliamentary system - the Prime Minister must get elected to the Lok Sabha. And the Congress president must answer why she wants this weakness on display for another five years?

- Balbir K. Punj can be contacted at punjbk@gmail.com

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