Journalists galore are pontificating over the first year of Manmohan Singh’s rule. But the issue itself is wrongly phrased. It assumes that Manmohan Singh is the ruler. That is not and cannot be the case in the Congress party. Only members of the Gandhi family may rule. Others act at their pleasure.
This does not mean that non-family members have no power. The dynasty has always allowed its Ministers much scope for new policies. But these are subject to family clearance, must be done in the name of the family, and must not create any rival power centre.
Any Chief Minister who performs really well should worry that he may be committing the serious offence of stealing the limelight from the family. HN Bahuguna, for instance, was removed as Chief Minister of UP for performing too well. The party culture was best summed up by former Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka, Gundu Rao. When asked about his plans for building his own political base, he replied (almost in panic) that he had no intention of creating his own base, and his only base was Indira Gandhi.
The situation under Sonia Gandhi is not as bad. Yet see the shameful mistreatment of Sheila Dikshit. She is among the most successful Congress Chief Ministers. Yet she was almost sacked at the behest of Ram Babu Sharma, a non-entity who managed to get an inside line to 10 Janpath. In a dynastic party, whom you know matters more than what you achieve.
The party faced an identity crisis in 1990 when Rajiv Gandhi was murdered. Sonia was uninterested in politics. Her children, Rahul and Priyanka, were still students. Deprived of a Gandhi, the party temporised by choosing Narasimha Rao, not because he was a major leader but precisely because he had no base, and had actually announced his retirement from politics.
Becoming Prime Minister gave Rao some authority. Yet he was forced out of the party leadership on a corruption charge. This could never have happened to a Gandhi.
Sitaram Kesari took over next. He commanded so little respect that defectors flooded out of the party in the run-up to the 1998 election. Without a Gandhi in charge, there was no glue to hold the party together.
So, partymen told Sonia only she could save the party from collapse. Reluctantly, she agreed to take over. Almost miraculously, the defections stopped instantly. The dynasty was back.
The Congress was hammered in the 1998 election, and the naïve blamed Sonia for it. How silly! She had saved the party from disintegration, saved it to fight another day. But for her, the party could never have survived or regained power.
Manmohan Singh is well known as an economic manager. But he also has political savvy. As an economist-bureaucrat he has been a close observer of and collaborator with generations of Gandhis. When he was made Prime Minister, he knew what the dynasty needed from him.
Sonia, never keen on politics, had taken over simply to keep the dynastic business intact for her children to inherit. The dynasty most certainly did not need an aggressive newcomer asserting himself as boss. It needed a number two to hold the fort, one who had no ambition of becoming number one.
Viewed in this light, Manmohan Singh is less a Prime Minister than a regent, keeping the dynastic seat warm till the new generation takes over. Regents are welcome to launch new initiatives and policies. But they are not expected to take risks that might jeopardize the dynasty’s prospects. On the contrary, they are expected to focus on continuity, avoid conflicts, and keep the inheritance intact.
Manmohan Singh seems to have grasped this reality, and is acting accordingly. That is one reason why the regent always goes the extra mile to accommodate the Left Front and Laloo Yadav: this buys time for Rahul and Priyanka.
When Lal Advani accuses him of being an invisible Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh can smilingly take this as a compliment. He knows that dynasties do not like highly visible regents.
His overall approach can summed up in seven commandments.
Thou shalt not displease Sonia.
Thou shalt not displease the Left Front.
Thou shalt not test the limits of your powers.
Thou shalt focus on surviving a full 5-year term.
Thou shalt accomodate in the cabinet all criminals who can help this aim
Thou shalt at the end of your regency hand over the reins to the true dynastic inheritors.
Thou shalt, meanwhile, be free to initiate policies that threaten neither the dynasty nor the coalition’s survival (such as improving relations with Pakistan and China, and organizing buses to Muzzafarabad). .
Some observers give Manmohan Singh barely pass marks for his first year as Prime Minister, But, seen as a regent, he qualifies for a first division.