PM’s Teflon image will wear thin unless guilty punished

February 19th, 2011 - 11:06 am ICT by IANS  

Manmohan Singh By Amulya Ganguli
It is a measure of the respect which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh continues to inspire that he was able to get away without any serious damage to his credibility with admissions at his press conference that would have been politically disastrous for any other politician.Considering that he acknowledged the governance and ethical “deficits” of his tenure, and blamed “coalition dharma” for the unethical compromises, it was evident that the government’s failures far outweighed its successes.

What is more, since the compromises that he spoke of are known to be responsible for one of the biggest swindles in recent memory, it is patent enough that these did not entail ideological tussles, but concerned corrupt practices that have led to the incarceration of a minister in Delhi’s well-known Tihar Jail.

An acknowledgment of such candour can be a millstone round a politician’s neck. Yet, the prime minister has escaped relatively unhurt. Similarly, his observations that a great deal of unfinished business remains to be done, that reforms have stalled and that he is not a “lame duck” prime minister point to weaknesses which anyone less upright would have been reluctant to mention.

What has nevertheless helped him is the impression of sincerity which he conveys with his mild manner, his hesitant way of speaking - which was especially noticeable this time - and his straightforward answers without any attempt to duck difficult questions. Even if some of the replies seemed insipid and redolent of the bureaucratic habit of harping on technicalities to avoid being pinned down, it was his reputation for honesty which saw the prime minister through.

Given the fact that there is still no large-scale “deficit” of popular trust in him, there will be a sense of relief that he has promised to “stay the course”. It isn’t only the aam admi who will be relieved that no change of guard is in the offing, which could have plunged the country into an uncertain future, the Congress too must have realised that the party would have sunk much deeper in the present scam-tainted atmosphere if someone other than Manmohan Singh was at the helm.

The reason why the Congress continues to sail in choppy waters is its long history of scandals, including perhaps the most notorious of them all - the Bofors howitzer saga of 1987 - which brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government’s majority from a mammoth 415 in 1984 to 197 in 1989. It was followed by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government which earned the dubious distinction of bribing the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MPs to stay in power.

It is in the aftermath of these scandals that the Congress not only lost power in 1996 but also appeared to have entered a period where even its own supporters were sceptical about success. In fact, the party was taken aback when it fared well enough in 2004 to be able to form a coalition government. But it was obvious to all that this turn of fortunes was primarily the result of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mistakes, including the Gujarat riots of 2002, which were held responsible by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, its prime minister from 1998 to 2004, for its defeat.

To many, however, the present spate of scams are a sign that the Congress is back to its old ways. However, to keep such insinuations at bay, Manmohan Singh is the party’s best bet. He may be accused of being too nice a person or not being assertive enough. Some of his admissions - “I did not feel I had the authority to object to Raja’s entry (to the cabinet in 2009) because although complaints were coming, some were from those companies that had not benefited” - even underline his excessive leniency.

Even then, he comes out as a person whose personal integrity seemingly blinds him to the deviousness of others. It may be a fault in a person in such a responsible position since it can make the unworthy take advantage of his innate goodness, but most people will still prefer a decent individual as prime minister to a crafty one.

At the same time, it is possible that Manmohan Singh is drawing heavily on his personal resources of honesty. In fact, his uprightness has made too many crooks run amok. As a result, the focus will now be on seeing whether he is prepared to crack the whip on the wrongdoers “this time”, as he has said. Any further dithering will be politically fatal for him and his party. Unless the guilty are punished, his Teflon image will wear thin.

Apart from his reputation, Manmohan Singh and the Congress have also benefited from the BJP’s failure to deal with the allegations of corruption in its own camp, notably in the case of Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, some of whose acts have been called “immoral”, though not illegal, by his own party president Nitin Gadkari. As a result, the party had to keep Yeddyurappa out of all its recent anti-corruption meetings.

But there are others in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is both clean himself and unrelenting in cracking down on corrupt officials in the state.

Manmohan Singh’s disadvantage is that he is politically lightweight. Not being a stirring orator since he is too academic-minded, he is not a crowd-puller and will be hard put to win an election. His forte, however, is his uncluttered vision of India’s progress in the economic field, where he does not carry the baggage of his party’s old-fashioned socialism and is, therefore, more in tune with the younger generation as well as the new, consumerist middle and upper classes. It is these sections which will be pleased with his determination not to give up “half way”.

(19.02.2011 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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