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The prime minister doesn't have all the answers

By Saisuresh Sivaswamy
Last updated on: May 25, 2010 11:42 IST
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The prime minister's worst achievement is that in the one year of his second government, he has not sent out the message that he means business, notes Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

One year ago, when the second edition of the United Progressive Alliance came to power, one felt that we would be seeing a different government. There was unanimity among various groups that the first one was a holding operation; trammelled by its lack of parliamentary numbers and a fire-breathing Left, it stumbled through five years of staying in office without really doing much.

Apart from the prime minister's pet project, the nuclear deal with the United States over which much blood was spilt with the Left, that government did get some landmark legislations passed. Like the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

But throughout those five years an impression was created, and the Left did little to correct it, that the UPA government wasn't being given breathing space to do the things it really wanted to. Perhaps the voters too bought the argument last year, since Verdict 2009 cut the Left down apart from boosting the Congress's numbers.

A year on, after it's clear that the Left was only UPA-I's whipping boy. A year on, despite getting rid of Prakash Karat and his band of fiery men, the UPA has been as sluggish as it was in its first term. So was the known devil (Left) better than the unknown angels (Mayawati, Mulayam and Mamta)? The only hint came at the prime minister's press conference on Monday where, when asked if he missed the Left parties' support, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, 'If wishes were horses beggars would ride.'

For those of us who resented the pressure the Left brought to bear on UPA-I, it is clear in retrospect -- as it is no doubt clear to the prime minister -- that the Left was not in it to strike deals or cut corners. They approached decisions through the prism of principle and policy, there was no surprise about it. With the new bunch of friends the UPA has acquired, it is all about politics, pulls and pressures.

What it has meant to governance is to project an image that the Centre cannot hold. That the prime minister is not in control (which is worse if you realise many think that the remote control to the government anyway lay in 10, Janpath).

The prime minister's Cabinet thus resembles a day-care centre where children are running riot, with the babysitter unable to maintain order.

Cabinet posts are filled not on merit but based on allies' intransigence. So a Muthuvel Karunanidhi is able to cock a snook at the prime minister, at the Congress party and its president Sonia Gandhi and retain a minister who caused pecuniary loss to the nation. We pilloried a prime minister for a scam worth a niggardly Rs 64 crore; but a mere minister who caused thousands of crores to vanish sits pretty.

Naturally when the prime minister opens his mouth about poverty alleviation in his second press conference in India as prime minister, there are silent guffaws.

Blame some of the last few incumbents for the erosion in its image, but the prime ministership of India is not a pushover. Indians like their rulers to show steel -- which is why Indira Gandhi, despite her many flaws, remains a perennial favourite. The only time the UPA's prime minister of six years has shown steel was when the Left's demands got to him, and that was a good two years ago.

Even if you put it down to personal style -- I cannot be like my boss nor he like me, I know -- the prime minister has not convinced that his style works.

It is not just that he has been unable to either gag his ministers who clearly believe words speak louder than action or rein in those who think they are not accountable to anyone for their actions. The prime minister's worst achievement is that in the one year of his second government, he has not sent out the message that he means business.

And this time there's no pesky Left around to pin the blame on.

What can be worse for a nation suffering the ill-effects of untrammelled inflation than having a celebrated economist at the helm who is unable to control it? You can draw two inferences from this failure. One is that the economist in him doesn't know how to control prices. The other, less charitable, inference is that he doesn't think it is cause enough to worry; in other words, Marie Antoinette like, he just doesn't care.

You can tug at the leash to join the global high table. You can let out a collective gasp that India is one of the letters in the four-letter acronym BRIC that is destined for greatness tomorrow. The world's most powerful man may take tips from you on how to manage his nation's ravaged economy. These are all heady things, no doubt, miracles for people like who me who grew up in an India of deprivation and penury.

Alas, but of what use is any of it when our internal affairs is in a shambles!

If UPA-I had no clue about warding off jihadi attacks, UPA-II has no clue about preventing Maoist attacks. Terror earlier came wrapped in a green flag; today it comes covered in a red flag. Seeing how effete the government is in tackling their threat, it is a question of time before the Naxalites move out of the red corridor and into our cities and towns. Will the government's wait for a strategy cost the nation dear?

After so much brouhaha over the Women's Reservation Bill, there's been no squeak out of the government on its fate. Will its structure change, as the allies have been demanding? Considering how successful the latter have been in getting the government to include caste as a factor in the ongoing census, the signs are clear. This government is malleable on most issues.

What was also clear, thanks to Monday's press conference, is that the prime minister doesn't have all the answers. Either he doesn't have all the facts at his disposal, or you can contact the PMO.

But don't blame me, I didn't vote for this government!

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy