Six months of timid waffle

How do we sum up Manmohan Singh’s first six months as Prime Minister? Lots of words and little concrete action. His one clear strategy seems to be a single-minded focus on surviving for a full five-year term, and if this means waffle and timidity, so be it. Optimists will call this prudence. Pessimists will call it funk.

I think pessimists have the stronger case. Many of us had cheered Manmohan Singh’s appointment. We knew his scope for radical reform would be limited by his dependence on Sonia Gandhi on the one hand, and the Left Front on the other.

Yet, even if he went slow on economic reform, we thought he would surely improve the quality of politics, substituting principle for expediency. That has not happened.

His main strategy can be summed up as: do not displease Madam, and do not displease the Left. Do not test the limits of your power, just concentrate on survival. This is not what I had expected.

The quality of politics cannot be raised without drastic steps to reduce its criminalisation. Yet Manmohan Singh inducted into his cabinet a long list of people with criminal records. Obviously he had to offer a top ministry to Laloo Yadav, despite that worthy’s involvement in the Bihar fodder scam. But he could have refused to appoint others with criminal records. Alas, he not only ushered in the criminals but strongly defended them, saying they must be considered innocent till proven guilty beyond all appeals. This would be an unexceptionable sentiment in a country where criminals were routinely brought to book. But it is scandalous in India, where nobody is convicted beyond all appeals. Harshad Mehta and Lakhubhai Pathak died of old age before their cases were concluded, and it will be the same with Manmohan’s rogues’ gallery.

One of them, Mohammed Taslimuddin, entered the cabinet of Prime Minister Deve Gowda in 1996, but was dropped when his unsavoury history came to light. At that time, the prime minister was capable of being embarrassed. Not any more, it seems.

Naturally, the BJP made much of Manmohan Singh’s ‘tainted’ ministers. The Congress responded by reviving an ancient, forgotten case in Karnataka against Uma Bharati, the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. The tactic worked: the BJP asked Uma Bharati to step down. The lady arrived in a fury in Karnataka, determined to gain prominence through martyrdom. But suddenly the case against her was withdrawn by the Congress state government. Why? To prevent the BJP getting any mileage out of her martyrdom in the coming Maharashtra election. This was brazen abandonment of principle on basic issues like what constitutes a crime, who should be arrested or prosecuted, and why. Instead of observing the rule of law, we observed the most cynical political manipulation of the law. It was enough to infuriate even Laloo Yadav. For once, I shared his fury.

Next came the row over Mani Shankar Aiyar removing a plaque on Veer Savarkar, the inventor of Hindutva, from the Cellular Jail in the Andamans. This was not so different from Congress’ earlier objection to Savarkar’s portrait being put in the Central Hall of Parliament. But at this juncture the Maharashtra election was imminent, so Manmohan Singh soft-pedalled on Savarkar. He went along with the soft Hindutva that has become the Congress strategy since the Gujarat riots of 2002. He said we should not speak ill of the dead. Really? Should we all stop speaking ill of Hitler and Stalin?

Manmohan Singh has frequently talked of the need to improve governance, to reform the dysfunctional administration, police system and judicial system. Yet we see no sign of action, only suggestions to set up a new committee on administrative reforms. This is waffle. Umpteen committees have given umpteen recommendations on reforming the administrative and judicial system. We need action, not more committees.

In this column, I have deliberately not discussed his economic policies. Many of us hailed his appointment not because he was a good economist but because he was a good man. Six months later, we have to acknowledge that our hero has done little if anything to change the quality of politics or governance.

What do you think?