Manmohan Singh: silence is not always golden (Comment)

August 7th, 2010 - 10:50 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Amulya Ganguli
Jawaharlal Nehru was a close approximation of Plato’s philosopher-king. Of all other prime ministers after him, Manmohan Singh has the most distinguished academic record. Yet, the gentle Sikh lacks the communication skills of the patrician Kashmiri Brahmin.

Whereas the first prime minister, who was known for his eloquence, spent considerable time even during public rallies to explain India’s multicultural heritage and digress into foreign policy to underline the meaning of non-alignment, Manmohan Singh has been unusually reticent for a leader of the government.

True, Nehru was laying the foundation of a new India and needed to educate his audience about the direction in which the country was moving and the value of its unity in the aftermath of the traumatic partition. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, has no such compulsions since he presides over a stable establishment whose long-term aims and objectives are known.

His problems are more of an immediate and even transient nature - price rise, Maoist insurgency, the unrest in Kashmir, Pakistan’s doublespeak, the seemingly all-pervasive corruption, the rise of obscurantist forces like the khap panchayats, et al. Yet, the prime minister prefers to keep his own counsel.

Manmohan Singh’s last press conference, for instance, was a deadly bore, so much so that his press adviser blamed the media for the soporific event by saying that the prime minister was not aggressively challenged.

It is possible that his silence is responsible for several of his partymen daring to speak out of turn on important subjects. Their freelancing gives the impression that the party and the government are at loggerheads. A senior Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, even called Home Minister P. Chidambaram intellectually arrogant, thereby hinting that the latter’s anti-Maoist policies do not have the party’s backing.

Considering that the prime minister had called the Maoist rebellion a grave internal threat, he might have been expected to stand by the home minister to dissuade the critics, which also included Rajya Sabha MP Mani Shankar Aiyar. But Manmohan Singh maintained a deafening silence, leaving it to Chidambaram to say plaintively that if anyone thought that he could do the job of containing Maoism better, he was welcome to take charge.

Needless to say such meekness can only be of solace to the insurrectionists, who may also derive considerable satisfaction from a BJP MP’s description of Aiyar as “half Maoist”. Since the Maoists enjoy a measure of support from the left-leaning intelligentsia (though not from the mainstream communist parties), one might have expected the prime minister to explain why he considered them a menace.

There is little doubt about the huge impact such an intervention would have made because his would have been an intellectual approach. But Manmohan Singh has chosen to leave the defence of the government’s policy in this regard to Chidambaram.

A similar forceful intervention by him was also needed on the continuing disturbances in Kashmir, especially when even a hawk like Syed Ali Geelani has modified his tone, evidently because he thought that the situation was spinning out of control.

Even if the scope for fresh initiatives is limited, a pro forma conciliatory statement from the highest level in Delhi - on the National Conference’s decade-old autonomy proposal, for instance - can go a long way to defuse tension. Instead, the impression persists that all that the state and central governments can do is to enforce increasingly harsh security measures like curfews and shoot-at-sight orders.

With regard to the inflationary trends, too, it was left to the government’s No.1 troubleshooter, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, to persuade the opposition to let parliament function. Yet, as a widely acclaimed economist, Manmohan Singh might have been expected to explain the phenomenon of rising prices if only to show that the government was not at its wit’s end in dealing with the problem.

Even with regard to India-Pakistan relations, in which the prime minister is known to take greater interest than in probably any other subject, Manmohan Singh did no more than state the obvious about how Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi virtually sabotaged the joint press conference in Islamabad with his Indian counterpart.

It is understandable that in all these matters, the prime minister need not - and should not - always make an immediate response. But what he has to do is to present the big picture to the public by articulating the whys and wherefores of the main concerns of the day and explaining how the government intends to tackle them.

For instance, the fiasco in Islamabad is believed to be the outcome of the Pakistan Army pulling strings from behind. It is for the prime minister to think aloud, so to say, about how India can deal with such a shadowy Machiavellian presence in the neighbouring country. Silence in this respect can be interpreted as a failure to formulate the government’s policy.

Manmohan Singh’s advantage is that he is not regarded as a run-of-the-mill politician. This enviable distinction can enable him to rise above the ground-level melee and speak some home truths on the shame of “honour” killings, for instance, or the Taliban-like depredations of the khap panchayats.

The scams affecting the Commonwealth Games also give him an excellent opportunity to lambast the prevailing corruption at all levels while assuring the nation and the world of the country’s ability to conduct an international event of this magnitude. Unless, of course, the presence of suspects in his own council of ministers because of coalition compulsions makes him believe that silence is golden. If so, he is only damaging his own reputation.

(07.08.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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