Insulted by Rahul Gandhi, ignored by the party and let down by loyalists, the isolated Prime Minister refuses to resign but is determined to redeem his tainted legacy
The fallen find few friends in politics. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh realised this bitter truth when Rahul Gandhi vetoed his Government’s ordinance on convicted politicians. Always a gentleman and conscious of how much he is indebted to the benevolence of 10 Janpath for his job, Manmohan suffered the public humiliation in silence. No solace came from his colleagues. There was only the family— his own— to lean back on. On October 1, a day after returning from his trip to the US, daughters Daman Singh and Upinder Singh urged him over dinner at his 7 Race Course Road home to “give it all up” and go back to teaching, only to be stonewalled by a standard response: “I have a responsibility and can’t turn my back on it.”
The Prime Minister is, however, a disappointed man. And it was most apparent during the Cabinet meeting on October 3 when the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh was being discussed. As two ministers from the state, M. M. Pallam Raju and K. S. Rao, rose angrily and protested against the creation of Telangana, all eyes were on the man presiding over the meeting. “Manmohan Singh sat zen- like throughout without uttering a word. When he was asked to take a call, he simply pointed to Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, and said that it is his ministry’s issue and he’ll defend it,” said a minister who attended the meeting. It took Shinde two hours to forge a consensus, but not before agreeing to set up a group of ministers to address the issues arising out of the proposed bifurcation.
The Prime Minister did not express any view. “No, he was not sulking because of the public snub by Rahul Gandhi, and the fact that he had been forced to withdraw the controversial ordinance on convicted politicians just a day earlier. This is how Manmohan Singh has become in the past few years— distant and aloof to the point of indifference,” says a confidant. He barely contributes to Cabinet meetings, and leaves it to the minister concerned to introduce, explain and then defend the Cabinet note.
Congress Vice- President Rahul Gandhi’s outburst on the ordinance, terming it “nonsense”, and the Prime Minister’s refusal to respond, has only underlined the perception that he is a pushover. His detached defence—“I don’t get upset easily. There is no question of resigning”— did not win him many admirers. With less than six months to go for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Congress would just wish Manmohan away if it could, but only after heaping the blame for everything that is wrong with UPA 2 on him.
With CBI waiting at his doorstep in connection with the Coalgate scam, the Prime Minister wants to utlilise his last few months in power to clear his name, fearing hounding by the agency once he walks away. His trusted aide and adviser TKA Nair has already been questioned by CBI once. “If he quits now, the Prime Minister will be in a bigger soup. He is stuck in the corner he has been pushed into. He can’t rely on the country’s Attorney General ( G. E. Vahanvati), who owes his allegiance to people close to Congress President Sonia Gandhi,” says a source close to Manmohan.
The official PMO stand is that there is nothing to implicate the Prime Minister in Coalgate and that he sent off everything with the note “for appropriate action” to the coal secretary. But the fact remains that Manmohan is
worried and has been forced to approach private lawyers for help. “The fear is, Manmohan Singh may suffer the fate of another non- family Congress prime minister, the late P. V. Narasimha Rao,” says one of the lawyers. Soon after demitting office, Rao faced charges in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha bribery case and St Kitts case. Over the years, Congress has also tried to undermine Rao’s legacy in ushering economic reforms in the country with his then finance minister, Manmohan.
ALONE ATTHE TOP
The Prime Minister sees himself as standing alone at the end of his political career. The ministers he could trust in the Cabinet are no longer there. The so- called Chandigarh Club has been demolished. Ashwani Kumar had to resign as law minister when he tried to manipulate CBI’S probe into Coalgate. Pawan Bansal had to quit as railways minister after his nephew was found meddling in ministry appointments for money. Manmohan can only claim Law Minister Kapil Sibal as a loyalist. However, sources say even Sibal is disillusioned with the way the Prime Minister is allowing Congress to run roughshod over him. Sibal was not in favour of bringing the ordinance to protect convicted politicians, especially since the bill was pending with the parliamentary standing committee. According to sources, he had explained it to Manmohan, who had tried to raise the issue of propriety in the Congress core committee meeting, headed by Sonia, which approved the ordinance. “Sibal agreed to it only after the Prime Minis-
THE PRIME MINISTER’S AUTHORITY HAS BEEN SYSTEMATICALLY WHITTLED DOWN IN HIS SECOND TENURE. HE HAS NOW CEDED HIS AUTHORITY OF MAKING APPOINTMENTS EVEN IN THE PMO.
ter requested him to do so. When he was asked to withdraw it on October 2, Sibal made his displeasure known, without mincing any words,” a source in the law ministry claims.
Sibal is not the only one who is unhappy. Sanjaya Baru, the Prime Minister’s media adviser during UPA 1, is vocal about how the Gandhis are trying to strip Manmohan of any credit for any of the achievements of the Government. “The entire arrangement between the Prime Minister and the party has been that Sonia, and now Rahul, get all credit for the good the Government does, and the Prime Minister gets the blame for all the bad,” Baru told INDIA TODAY over email.
Now director for Geo- economics and Strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Singapore, Baru also touched upon the isolation of Manmohan in UPA 2. “In UPA 1, some of us resisted this ( the Prime Minister getting the blame for everything bad), and Singh was ‘ king’ after the nuclear deal. In UPA 2 no one resisted this, so Manmohan is now seen as ‘ sinking’,” he added. On being asked why Manmohan isn’t quitting, Baru replied, “I
guess he has not resigned partly because he has come to terms with this arrangement, and partly out of a sense of loyalty to Sonia and the party. In the process the institution of the prime minister has been diminished.”
The Prime Minister’s authority has been systematically whittled down in his second tenure. For a person who took on the bureaucracy by appointing Shyam Saran foreign secretary in 2004, superseding several IFS officers, Manmohan has now ceded his authority of making appointments even in the PMO. In July 2011, nine of the Prime Minister’s trusted officials were packed off from PMO citing the seven- year ceiling on deputation. These included his secretary M. N. Prasad, additional secretary R. Gopalakrishnan, joint secretaries Pankaj Saran, Sanjay Mitra and Vini Mahajan, as well as four directors.
That wasn’t the first time that the PMO had been recast. Manmohan’s private secretary BVR Subrahmanyam was sent out in 2008; Baru left for Singapore around the same time. Sonia’s trusted lieutenant Pulok Chatterji, who was then joint secretary in PMO, also left for a World Bank assignment. However, he was made to cut short his tenure and installed in PMO again in 2011. M. K. Narayanan, who
THE PM’S ‘ CHANDIGARH CLUB’ IS GONE. ASHWANI KUMAR RESIGNED AS LAW MINISTER IN THE WAKE OF COALGATE. PAWAN BANSAL QUIT RAILWAYS AFTER HIS NEPHEW WAS ACCUSED OF GRAFT.
was national security adviser since J. N. Dixit’s death in 2006, was despatched as governor of West Bengal in 2010.
The Prime Minister managed to retain only Nair from his original group of trusted officials. A Punjab- cadre IAS officer, Nair was chosen by Manmohan to be his principal secretary when he took over as prime minister in 2004. When Chatterji was brought in as principal secretary, the Prime Minister dug in his heels to retain Nair as his adviser.
OUTLIVING HIS WELCOME
Manmohan has realised his time in the Government is over. Perhaps he jumped the gun on April 5, when during his interaction with the media at Rashtrapati Bhavan after presentation of the Padma awards, he said that he did not “rule out or rule in” a third term for himself. That was the point when he lost trust as an implicit loyalist of the Gandhi family. He tried to make amends when, on his way back from the G- 20 Summit in St Petersburg on September 8, he expressed willingness to work “happily” for Congress under Rahul’s leadership.
Realising he has little to contribute to the Government at this late stage, Manmohan has decided to work on his core areas— economy and foreign
policy. He believes he has put the economy on the right track by appointing Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor. Now that the currency has stabilised, the new governor’s focus is on curbing dependence on external sources of funding and encouraging domestic savings.
Sources close to the Prime Minister say that he is not looking at any major long- term policy but will take it one month at a time. His itinerary in the next few months is packed with foreign trips. On October 9, he left on a fourday visit to Brunei for the ASEAN summit, and Indonesia in a bid to push the Government’s ‘ Look East’ policy.
Soon after, he will leave for Russia and China on October 20. He is likely to sign crucial pacts with both the countries on trade, business and energy, things he construes as ‘ fixing the external economy factors’. With Moscow, Manmohan is expected to assure President Vladmir Putin on concerns over India’s nuclear liability law and also on the safety of Russian investments, including in the telecom sector. Resolving the nuclear liability issue is crucial for a contract for supply of Russian reactors for Units 3 and 4 of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project. With Beijing, he may articulate India’s concerns over trans- border rivers, trade deficit and boundary flare- ups.
On his recently concluded visit to the US, Manmohan made an effort to reach out to foreign investors and tried to alleviate concerns about unpredictability of taxation law. He referred to the Parthasarathi Shome Committee report on the controversial tax proposal, which has recommended that implementation of General Anti- Avoidance Rules ( GAAR) should be deferred by three years to April 2017.
Regarding his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York, in the backdrop of the infiltration bid at Keran in Jammu and Kashmir, sources in the PMO claim Manmohan was very firm with him. “He told Sharif he hadn’t become the PM to bargain over India’s borders,” a source says. At the same time, the Prime Minister has not given up on peace with Pakistan, something that he hopes will be his enduring legacy.
November has been kept aside for canvassing for Assembly and then Lok Sabha elections. However, neither the Congress office nor PMO has received a single request for Manmohan to campaign in any state. “It is not the Prime
PMO SOURCES SAY EVEN THOUGH MANMOHAN SINGH HAS NOT GIVEN UP ON PEACE WITH PAKISTAN, HE TOLD NAWAZ SHARIF IN NEW YORK THAT HE WOULD NOT BARGAIN OVER INDIA’S BORDERS.
Minister’s fault. He is just not an inspirational speaker. But we’re chalking out a campaign itinerary for him. After all, he is still Prime Minister,” says a Congress general secretary.
Treated like the prime object of humiliation, Manmohan Singh is stoic as ever. He is determined to make the best of his last six months in office, even if it is a lone battle to regain honour— and redeem a tainted legacy. Follow the writers on Twitter @ BhavnaVij and @ anshuman_ says For more pictures of Manmohan Singh, go to www. indiatoday. in/ doc- pics
PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH
( FROM LEFT, FRONTROW) RAHULGANDHI, SONIA GANDHI AND MANMOHAN SINGH ATAYOUTH CONGRESS RALLY
ASHWANI KUMAR ( LEFT)
AND PAWAN BANSAL
PAKISTAN’S PRIME MINISTER NAWAZ SHARIF ( LEFT) WITH MANMOHAN SINGH IN NEWYORK