When nobody seems in charge

Manmohan government is collection of motley power centres working at cross purposes


Ajay Singh | February 15, 2011

The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself.” Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, may have altered his views if he could have taken the Manmohan Singh government into account. This government not only lacks the courage to even go through the charade of reforms but also buries its head deep in the sand in the face of the gathering storm. For once, it is a case of not bad government but seeming absence of government.

Who would believe that the institution of Indian prime minister is virtually under siege?  If the A Raja saga is any indication, the country’s executive head was helpless as a minister swindled the nation’s coffers. The prime minister was equally clueless in the face of indiscretions of his other cabinet colleague, Sharad Pawar, which led to the rise and rise in prices of food grains. Jairam Ramesh does not care two hoots about the prime minister’s office (PMO) either as he goes on articulating his own vision of economic growth.

That the various arms of the government are working at cross purposes has become a rule not exception these days. The S-band scam is also a result of this syndrome. The Indian space research organisation, which works under the PMO, chose to ignore the prime minister and the cabinet to strike a deal with a private entity on handing over precious spectrum.

In a parliamentary democracy, the responsibility of running parliament lies squarely with the government. Just after the 2G scam broke, the government seemed to have given up its responsibility to run the house. Of course, the recalcitrant opposition latched on to the slightest pretext to stall parliament. But the 2G scam was much more than a slight provocation. The demand for the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) by the opposition was then a logical fallout.

In the run-up to the budget session, it seemed parliament was set for another stormy affair even if the government conceded the JPC probe. The opposition is not likely to let go of any opportunity to drive home its point that the government is not only ineffectual but also wilfully promoting corruption and cronyism.

In such a scenario, the question arises as to why the situation has come to such a pass in less than two years of the Congress-led UPA’s second coming at the centre. By 2009, Manmohan Singh was seen as a decisive prime minister who had taken on the entire opposition on the Indo-US nuclear deal and spared no effort to see the deal through. Even his political opponents vouched for his image as an honest and decent man. But in spite of the endorsement of his international stature as “guru” by no less a person than US president Barack Obama, Singh’s image has taken a serious knock in his second term.

Obviously the malaise is far deeper than what appears to be on the surface. The prime minister’s is certainly not an administrative job. It is not without reason that the post has been usually occupied only by the country’s most powerful politician. Manmohan Singh, however, derives his influence not through his political stature but through his administrative position. Even after Sonia Gandhi, there are many leaders within the Congress party who are taller politicians than Singh. Pranab Mukherjee is just one example who runs a parallel government through several dozen empowered groups of ministers.

The UPA-2 is beset by multiple power centres. The running feud between the Sonia Gandhi-led national advisory council and the prime minister’s office over minimum wages for the MNREGA workers or right to food bill is the most serious of rows. But there are several other power centres as well, with Kamal Nath, Mamata Banerjee, M Karunanidhi and others in charge. The prime minister’s position is, therefore, not unlike that of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar whose writ never ran beyond the walled city of Delhi. Zafar realised the dangers of surviving on borrowed authority only after his exile to Rangoon. In a democracy, prime ministers get to at least stay on in the country after they are forced out of office.



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