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PM's regency nearing its end

PM's regency nearing its end

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 22, 2007

There are many who will emerge from the Uttar Pradesh election not smelling of roses. There is the Samajwadi Party leadership which gives the impression of frolicking in Mumbai while Lucknow prepares for an upheaval; there are the "secular" psephologists who, it is being suggested, allowed their personal preferences to cloud their forecasts; and there are the Congress strategists who fantasised that only Muslims vote in Uttar Pradesh.

There are many claimants for the golden pumpkin award. In choosing a winner, however, my vote would unhesitatingly go to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Over the years India has had many Prime Ministers who didn't gauge the importance of the post they occupied. Charan Singh, who never faced Parliament for a single day, was unable to rise above his preoccupation with transfers and postings in Uttar Pradesh; Chandra Shekhar and his ministerial colleagues, it was unflatteringly said, squeezed as much from the system in 40 days what had taken others 40 years; HD Deve Gowda was steadfast in his belief that he was the Prime Minister of Karnataka; and the hapless IK Gujral never quite realised that there was a world outside the Punjabi-speaking, ex-residents of Pakistan.

What distinguished the four from others was that they occupied the highest political post without even the hint of a popular mandate. They came to the top job by either intrigue or accident. It is also interesting that it was the Gandhi family which rescued the country from prolonged exposure to these interlopers. Once the family found it had no use for casual labour, they were discarded for the flimsiest of reasons - including the suspicious behaviour of four constables.

There have been three occasions when serving Congressmen, other than members of the family, have made it as Prime Minister. Lal Bahadur Shastri survived Indira Gandhi's condescension and even the skulduggery that kept him from moving into Teen Murti House, but died before he could establish his political mark. PV Narasimha Rao, who was dragged out of retirement when Rajiv Gandhi was killed in 1991, proved so amazingly wily and independent that 10 Janpath had to engineer a revolt within the Congress - remember an outfit called Congress (Tiwari)? - to make doubly sure that he didn't win the 1996 election. Rao's problem was that he wasn't sufficiently deferential to the lady. He mistakenly thought that she would be satisfied running Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, learning art restoration and overseeing a few museums.

Manmohan, who served Rao loyally and capably, has learnt the lessons of those five years. He has never allowed himself to forget that he holds office on sufferance because the lady wanted the babalog to first familiarise themselves with politics and governance. He has successfully transferred crucial decision-making from himself to the UPA chairperson. At times he has conducted himself like McCavity the mystery cat - never present at the hint of trouble - and at other times he has played the loyal Gunga Din, taking in the flying bullets. Most important, he has never shown the slightest hint of the bloated ego that comes with the tenancy in Race Course Road. Like most of the Emergency-era editors, he has simply crawled when asked to bend.

This week he has done what no Prime Minister before him has dared do - admit that he is just a cipher. First, as a curtain-raiser to the equation of India with the Gandhi family, he declared Rahul Gandhi as "your future leader". He followed it up by declaring at election meetings, "Sonia Gandhi aur Rahul Gandhi aapki madad maang rahe hain." Finally, in policy terms, he has said adieu to the only thing he has ever believed in - the Indo-US nuclear agreement.

As the Congress meanders from one electoral debacle to another, the launch of Rahul and the Prime Minister's servility is acquiring a new meaning. What a Cabinet Minister once described as the Regency period is fast coming to an end. The Congress is readying for the new Gandhi coronation. It is likely to happen before the general election.

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