Manmohan needs to assert his authority as PM (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Saturday, December 18, 2010

Few would have thought that the Manmohan Singh government would be floundering in the dark only a year after the second successive general election victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Instead, it was believed that with a higher majority and in the absence of the obstructionist Left parties, it would be able to consolidate its position and look forward with considerable confidence towards a third term in 2014. In fact, the speculation was that Rahul Gandhi would replace Manmohan Singh in that year.

All those dreams and aspirations have, however, gone up in smoke. While the Congress stumbles from crisis to crisis, it is its arch adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that is eager for the next trial of strength, preferably before the scheduled year.

The reason why the Congress squandered the advantages of its 2009 success is a combination of complacency and inability to control the coalition partners with a firm hand. Both flaws are explicable. While its smugness stemmed from the disarray in the opposition camp, the Congress’ management of the alliance was unfortunately characterised by far too relaxed an attitude, especially towards allies that do not have the best of reputations.

Perhaps the reduction in the clout of earlier potential troublemakers like Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) made it drop its guard. The preoccupation of the Trinamool Congress, the Congress’ largest partner with 19 MPs, with West Bengal may have enhanced its permissiveness.

The result was that it was not sufficiently vigilant about the second largest ally, the DMK, which has 18 MPs. This was a fatal mistake for which both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have to be held responsible.

While Sonia Gandhi’s insistence on sustaining the coalition meant turning a blind eye to some of the peccadilloes of the allies, Manmohan Singh’s mildness made him commit the same mistake. As a result, his USP of being a thorough gentleman became a disadvantage.

Nothing demonstrated this willingness to retreat before the machinations of the allies more than the Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan’s continuing reference to the imperatives of “coalition dharma” even when the Supreme Court was castigating the then communications minister Andimuthu Raja for suspected venality and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was accusing the minister of causing a mammoth loss of $40 billion to the exchequer in the dubious deals relating to the allocation of second generation spectrum.

It was only when the scandal appeared to be getting out of hand with the judiciary asking why Raja was not being interrogated by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the prime minister’s name being dragged into the controversy through a petition filed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy that the minister was finally asked to resign.

But by then it was too late. Coupled with the earlier scam relating to the Commonwealth Games and others, including one about a housing society in Mumbai which led to Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s resignation, the burgeoning 2G telecom spectrum scandal gave the impression that the prime minister was not fully in charge.

What lent substance to this belief was the Supreme Court’s observation that Raja had ignored Manmohan Singh’s advice on the issue. “When the prime minister has expressed concern, overruling, bypassing or brushing it aside is not proper,” the court said.

Although the prime minister’s personal integrity has not been questioned, the belief has nevertheless grown that he is too soft to deal with allies that are not exactly exemplars of probity. The DMK is particularly culpable in this regard. It is virtually a family enterprise run by an aging patriarch with two ambitious wives, two squabbling sons and a daughter who is trying to secure a foothold in politics, seemingly with Raja’s help.

By allowing Raja to retain his telecom portfolio in 2009 after the scandal had already surfaced, Manmohan Singh made his first major mistake. A less pliable person would have stood his ground. But not only did Manmohan Singh yield to the DMK’s unreasonable demands, he also unwisely let the tainted minister continue in office for more than a year which has inevitably led to the question why the prime minister was silent for so long.

Since the Congress is dependent on allies for survival in office, an element of compromise is unavoidable. What has, however, been missing is a realistic assessment of how damaging will be the impact of such give and take.

By failing to assert his authority at the right time - sacking Raja at least six months ago even if the prime minister was forced by the DMK to make him a minister - Manmohan Singh has not only harmed his own political standing but has also hurt the Congress since it can hardly expect much popular backing in its present scam-ridden state.

The scene has become murkier following the leakage of telephone conversations which were secretly recorded by a government agency. These reveal the behind-the-scenes efforts to influence the government by corporate lobbyists, former bureaucrats and media personalities. It is after these leaks that one of India’s most respected industrialists, Ratan Tata, compared the government to a banana republic with its implications of a country without rules which is ideal for crony capitalism.

As a result of the initial delay in taking action against the suspects, the present flurry of activity, with the CBI conducting countrywide raids on Raja and his associates, can seem like the antics of a headless chicken. Unless these quickly lead to arrests and punishments of politicians and their friends, there will be further erosion of the government’s credibility.

(18.12.2010 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at

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