Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had got all worked up when during the course of last year's parliamentary campaign, L K Advani called him the 'weakest prime minister that India has had so far'. The mild-mannered Singh was so angry that most uncharacteristically he gave it back to the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate in the same coin, mincing no words.
He made fun of Advani for pretending to be the Iron Man, the second Sardar Patel, the self-confessed penitent yatri, who after taking the Ram temple movement to a crescendo, shed tears, on his own admission, when the disputed structure in Ayodhya was demolished by kar sevaks. Going by the outcome of the parliamentary poll, it was clear that Singh had won that round.
But more than a year later it is now amply clear that that was a pyrrhic victory. For, in his second innings, Singh seems determined to prove Advani right. Strictly going by his performance thus far, not only is the United Progressive Alliance-II a non-starter, but, what is worse, the prime minister seems to have lost his way, failing to lead the motley crowd that passes for the ruling coalition.
A prime minister is supposed to be the unquestioned leader of the government whose voice on all important matters concerning the nation must be heard. He is supposed to set the agenda for the government, nay, for the country, spelling out his broad vision and inspiring people to partner in the task of nation-building. His word carries authority.
When the prime minister speaks, the people listen.
Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh's word does not carry any weight even with his own Cabinet colleagues. For evidence witness the almost daily antics of Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee. Singh is hardly seen in action even in Parliament. And rarely heard on the burning issues of the day, be it Kashmir, or Pakistan, or the growing threat from China of encirclement of this country.
Nothing illustrates the diminution of the Prime Minister's Office under Singh better than the plethora of Cabinet committees on all and sundry matters. Normally, it is the prime minister's writ which runs in all such policy matters, with individual ministers securing the PMO's nod before taking policy decisions.
But with Singh reduced to a mere cipher, it is Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee who rules the roost as the head of scores of committees. Singh is happy with the nomenclature while ceding power that comes with the office he holds to Mukherjee and others in the government and the party.
As a result, there is drift and dithering all around. The government is on auto-pilot with every minister doing his own thing unmindful of the prime minister's existence. Poor Manmohan Singh! He is unable to have his way even in small matters concerning appointments of key aides, including the Cabinet secretary.
Although there is evidence galore to buttress the charge that complete anarchy prevails in the government, a few instances which fully bear out the charge that the PM's writ does not run over the administration of which he is but only a figure-head.
Admittedly, signs of Singh's weakness were clear right at the time of the formation of the ministry in May 2009 when despite his desire not to induct the tainted A Raja into the government he was obliged to do so by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam boss M Karunanidhi.
Indeed, against his will, the prime minister was forced to yield an extra ministerial berth to the DMK. Now, having yielded on inducting Raja, Singh was pressured by the Karunanidhi-Sonia Gandhi combine to allot him the lucrative telecom portfolio, the very ministry handling which he had perpetrated which by all reckoning is by far the biggest corruption scandal in free India running into some Rs 100,000 crore.
However, even after Raja's actions were duly confirmed by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General, Singh failed to move him out of the key telecom ministry.
A couple of months ago, the prime minister had decided to shift Raja but at the last minute was made to drop the idea once Karunanidhi glowered at Congress leaders.
Raja's continuation as telecom minister is not the only example which proves the weakest prime minister charge. He is so helpless that despite his wanting to reshuffle the ministerial team, he has not been given the go-ahead by his bosses.
On the eve of the monsoon session of Parliament the prime minister had decided to undertake a minor reshuffle, but he was made to abandon the move following combined opposition from the Congress and DMK bosses.
More significantly, in UPA-II Singh is further hobbled by the growing distance between him and the 10, Janpath establishment. Now, it would be totally wrong to assume that all that emanates from 10 Janpath is Sonia Gandhi's doing. No.
Instead, she blesses various advisors who have managed to win her trust by self-interestedly conjuring up visions of the return of the Congress to the halcyon days of the 1960s and the early 1970s when it had ruled every nook and cranny of India.
That would explain various edicts to the government from the sanctum sanctorum to distribute largesse from the public exchequer in the hope that the masses would once again come under the spell of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Singh, it should be noted, in his avatar as a politician is against reckless populism.
Also, following his projection as the UPA's prime ministerial candidate in last year's poll, it was natural for Singh to believe that he had played some role in stopping the National Democratic Alliance's return to power. So he offered resistance to the hare-brained schemes pushed by 10 Janpath, especially those which would further bankrupt the national treasury.
His reluctance to follow orders distanced him from Sonia Gandhi. That would also explain the delay in reviving the National Advisory Council. Then there is the continuing dilly-dallying on the implementation of the food security scheme.
Because the prime minister's writ does not run outside his own office, the terrible plight of the government during the recently-concluded session of Parliament has not been blamed on him -- and, instead, individual ministers are getting the rap.
But the way the government was made to climb down on key legislative measures, and in the case of the big-ticket nuclear liability bill made to accommodate the BJP, it is amply clear that the ruling coalition has lost its way.
Not only was the civil nuclear bill changed drastically on the BJP demand to the utter chagrin of the PMO -- especially when nuclear suppliers were unwilling to do business under the changed bill -- but a number of bills were either shelved or sent to the committees despite ministerial opposition.
The lack of numbers in both Houses coupled with the absence of a purposeful leadership meant that Minister for Human Resources Development Kapil Sibal had to suffer the humiliation of his party members torpedoing the Education Tribunal Bill.
Home Minister P Chidambaram met a similar fate when the Enemy Property Amendment Bill was given the thumbs down by the Lok Sabha. Again, the Rajya Sabha showed Chidambaram who was the boss when it refused to ratify the Prevention of Torture Bill.
There is much more to establish the fact that the government is running, that is, if it is running at all, on Ram Bharose.
Being an honourable man, Singh has only two options. Either he asserts the authority of his high constitutional office, or makes way for someone else who is not a proxy for the Family and can command the Congress Parliamentary Party's loyalty. The current system of diarchy has not served the country well.