Time to be prime minister, Mr Prime Minister!

Manmohan Singh's waking somnolence may take him down as the most pilloried PM

bvrao

BV Rao | August 23, 2011




Early morning on Thursday, August 18, when the government blinked and “permitted” Anna Hazare to take his fast to Ramlila Grounds for 15 days, a young protestor outside Tihar Jail articulated India’s biggest problem in the most effective way.

“Fifteen days? Will it take this government 15 more days to do the obvious? What is wrong with our prime minister? Can’t he see and feel the mood of the nation? Why can’t he decide?”

Yes, for god’s sake and the country’s, why can’t he?

Anna has brought this government to the brink twice in the space of four months. It is often argued (even this newspaper has done so), that the reason for Anna’s stunning success is that he has hit the right button. Corruption and political inaction to help perpetuate it, is one issue on which there is national disgust. In a diverse democracy such as ours, it is well near impossible to have a national consensus on anything but if in recent months anything has come close to generating consensus it is that we need to kill corruption.

That is perhaps why Anna has been able to fire the imagination of the nation whereas Irom Sharmila, fighting for an equally worthy cause, has had to live with tubes in her nose for ten years and more.

But there are divisions even within this uniting cause, even if that sounds like a contradiction in terms. Everybody, even those opposed to Anna and his movement, agree that corruption is eating into our vitals and government after government has done nothing to slay the monster. But there is disagreement over the method of Anna’s protest, his right to protest, his version of the Lokpal bill and whether or not the citizen has a voice in law-making or if we are trampling upon the rights and duties of parliament.

It is this newspaper’s belief that all of this is just dishonest intellectual jugglery to confuse, confound and bully the aam aadmi with. Anna’s movement has done nothing to undermine any democratic institution nor is it propounding a democratic demon as the Jan Lokpal is being painted to be. The vested interest in maintaining status quo is not limited to politicians, bureaucrats and big business. Big media, intellectual India and even large sections of civil society are just as comfortable with what is.

But then again, that is just this newspaper’s view which only underscores the point that within the consensus on corruption, there are deep divisions. There is one issue on which there is unanimity, however. And that is on the issue of the pusillanimity of the prime minister.

Here there’s hardly any division. His resolute and unwavering subjugation of the highest executive office of the country to an unrecognised “higher” authority has started to rile even his admirers, of which there are many. This prime minister looks to the right when he is required to look to the left, he clams up when we want to hear his views on important national issues, he points to coalition compulsions and expresses helplessness when we want him to read the riot act to his cabinet colleagues and, worst of all, when we want him to look under his nose to stop corruption, he insists on looking “up” for directions.

The protestations of his media managers about his impeccable honesty and unimpeachable integrity have started grating the nation’s conscience. Just one example will suffice to illustrate this drastic image dilution of the prime minister.

Just before the start of his protest on August 16, Anna wrote a letter to the prime minister. The substance of the letter was that at 79, Manmohan had achieved much that most people could only dream of, so he should for once listen to his conscience and do the right thing for the nation (not the exact words of Anna). The government and the Congress party took extreme umbrage. Ambika Soni looked deeply hurt on behalf of the prime minister. “Never has such language been used for the prime minister of the country. This is below the belt,” she thundered suggesting that Anna must apologise.

Anna did not apologise. Nothing happened. 

At around the same time, the Congress party’s Manish Tewari, thumped the desk at his regular press conference and declared that Anna was “corrupt from head to toe”. Anna challenged the government to prove the charge and took off to Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi for meditation and inner reflection. The recoil was immediate. The distaste expressed from the ground up for trying to sully Anna’s image hit the party and the government like a tidal wave.

The Congress party has had to hide Manish Tewari from the camera since that day.

Just yesterday, some students of IIT Kharagpur opted to sit out of their convocation ceremony rather than receive at the hands of the prime minister. Said Shashi Sekhar Singh, an MTech student: "Receiving the degree from the PM could have been a lifetime experience, but I believe I should accept my degree from him only when we have a strong Lokpal."

Suddenly the integrity, credibility and honesty pedestal does not belong to the prime minister any more.

Worse, he has become the butt of jokes like no prime minister before him, except maybe Deve Gowda who was ridiculed for literally dozing through his term (come to think of it, the people’s vexation with Manmohan is also his somnolence, waking somnolence).

SMS jokes such as “the only 2G Manmohan knows is Sonia G and Rahul G”, or this purported announcement at the beginning of a conference “please switch off your mobiles or put them on Manmohan Singh mode” may sound rather unkind but illustrate how the prime minister in Manmohan Singh has let down the people.

All this might hurt his ego enormously, but it would help if he recalls that just two years ago, that was not the case. L K Advani and his party got a licking for picking on Manmohan and saying exactly the things that everybody is now saying.

What has changed in these two years is the initial perception that Manmohan sat there like the blind king Dhritarashtra while everybody around him looted the exchequer. Today when it is clear that everything happened within the range of his vision, Manmohan and his media managers made it worse by pointing fingers at every institution which went after the corrupt: the supreme court, the Comptroller and Auditor General, Anna Hazare and (to a lesser extent) Public Accounts Committee of parliament.

A senior freelance journalist told me that Indira Gandhi, known as one of the most decisive prime ministers, had a simple policy: If you can take a decision, don't postpone it. And if you can postpone a decision, don't take it. "She reversed this policy in Punjab and ultimately paid the price with her life," he said.

This nation is missing a prime minister. A prime minister who can follow up his personal convictions with official action. He said he was personally in favour of bringing the prime minister under the Lokpal but had to bow to the wishes of ten wise men in his cabinet. Rings hollow because on the other side are millions of people asking for it. A prime minister who also wants what millions of citizens want, just makes it happen.

It is such see-through dishonesty that has pitted Manmohan against Anna's movement. Rather than turning the Delhi Police on Anna Hazares, the nation needs him to show leadership. For, if he postpones the decision to act like the prime minister of the country that he is, he risks throwing away the legacy of a lifetime's work. And if he decides to be prime minister he will soon discover that he does not need a magic wand to wish away corruption. In a democracy the will of the people is the biggest magic wand he can ever hope to get. He just needs to have matching will.

So, get up and go ManmohanJi. It’s time to be prime minister.


 

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