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What consensus, Prime Minister?

What consensus, Prime Minister?

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: April 27, 2007

Even those who know him and admire his erudition would not disagree with noted economist and former West Bengal Finance Minister Ashok Mitra being described as an unreconstructed Marxist with an acid tongue. In fact, Mr Mitra revels in being rude - although he makes an exception if he takes a shine to you, which is a very big if - and unlike other Bengali bhadralok Marxists believes bhadrata and Marxism do not go hand-in-hand. Those who can recall his days as West Bengal's Finance Minister - an office he held till he marched out of Mr Jyoti Basu's Government after being bypassed on a rather petty issue - would also remember his infamous outburst: "I am not a bhadralok, I am a Communist."

It is, therefore, not surprising that in his autobiography, A Prattler's Tale, Mr Mitra should have dipped his pen in verjuice before putting down his description of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on paper. Rather overstating a facet of his personality, Mr Mitra writes, "I am afraid there is little scope for politeness here." But what follows is an apt description of India's accidental Prime Minister: "His timidity is the product of his civil servant's mind, which many mistake as humility." As if that were not scathing enough, he goes on to write about Mr Manmohan Singh's "lamb-like devotion to the Nehru household".

The last bit, or for that matter his assertion that Mr Singh owes his tenure as Finance Minister in PV Narasimha Rao's Government to the Americans, who had presumably spotted a potential Prime Minister way back in 1991 who could be manipulated to do their bidding, is not really germane to immediate concerns. What is of relevance is Mr Singh's crafty ability to exploit popular perceptions of his "humility", from which stems his image as that of a well-meaning, guileless person, for covering up obvious acts of omission and commission. Even when they stare us in the face, many of us would respond with, "Oh, well, he can't be blamed for it. He's a nice chap." What lends credibility to this hugely flawed perception is Mr Singh's pained look and the even more painful, plaintive tone in which he speaks. It may be politically incorrect to point this out, for it may be a genuine inadequacy, but it's tempting to be irreverent towards a man who has begun to take the country for granted.

Soon after the Congress was forced to get off the high horse it chose to ride despite the damning indictment of its senior leaders in Justice Nanavati's report on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, Mr Singh stood up in Parliament to apologise for his party's role in the slaughter of at least 3,000 innocent men, women and children - Rajiv Gandhi responded to that massacre with remarkable cruelty, "When a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake" - after Mrs Indira Gandhi's assassination. But instead of speaking for the Congress and offering an abject apology to the Sikhs and the nation, he slyly put the blame on the entire country by claiming to speak "on behalf of the nation". What did the nation have to do with those killings for which the Congress's 'hand' shall forever be tainted?

In more recent times, he has cunningly used an election rally in Uttar Pradesh to inform us that Mr Rahul Gandhi is India's "future". Odious as the concept of dynasty may be, there is no reason to cavil, especially if you are not particularly enamoured of the Congress, if those who seek inspiration from the Nehru-Gandhi family see Mr Rahul Gandhi as holding the key to their future political well-being. Mr Singh and his other fellow courtiers are welcome to believe that a callow politician who is yet to set foot on most parts of India is their "future". But neither he nor those who genuflect everytime they pass 10, Janpath have the right to insist that Mr Rahul Gandhi is the nation's future. In any event, such assertions, wily or otherwise, do not become a man who occupies the office of Prime Minister, even if he is no more than a regent keeping the masnad warm for the party's heir apparent.

A similar arrogation of the right to decide for more than a billion people on an issue that touches the very core of Indian nationhood was on display during Tuesday's 'Third Round Table Conference on Jammu & Kashmir' presided over by the Prime Minister and attended by those who would have no qualms about compromising India's national interest. After lengthy deliberations on the reports prepared by four of the five working groups that were set up to find ways and means of pandering to the separatists and their sponsors in Pakistan, Mr Singh, in his concluding remarks, said, "I get the feeling there is a broad consensus on the recommendations of the working groups." The Prime Minister's feelings are entirely misplaced. The gathering around the 'Round Table' does not represent national opinion; elected representatives of the people who sit in Parliament have not been consulted; and, the Hindus of Jammu & Kashmir, whose concerns should have come first since they comprise the minority in that State, are aghast that the Union Government should be seen to be abdicating both authority and responsibility.

The "consensus" that has been claimed by Mr Singh pertains to recommendations that are not only dangerous but outright harmful for India, both in terms of internal politics and external diplomacy. For instance, Mr Mohammed Hamid Ansari, who adorns the National Minorities Commission as its chairman and heads one of the working groups, has called for the revocation of laws that are needed to combat terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and which establish India's sovereign right to manage the affairs of this State. These include the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act. Mr Ansari believes that these laws "impinge on fundamental rights of citizens and adversely affect the public". He also wants amnesty for jailed militants and the Union Government to begin an "unconditional dialogue process with militant groups".

These and similar recommendations of three other working groups - the fifth working group on Centre-State relations is yet to come up with ideas about how to sever all linkages between New Delhi and Srinagar - obviously find favour with Mr Singh and, by extension, the household to which his "lamb-like devotion" Mr Mitra witheringly refers to. It is also abundantly clear that a Prime Minister who lacks the courage to instruct his Cabinet colleagues on administrative issues is determined to sweep aside the Army's objections and have security forces evicted from orchards and premises mostly owned by Pandits living in exile in their own country. It is of no consequence to him that once vacated, these orchards and premises will either be taken over by those who will later exercise squatter's rights or become the hideouts of foreign and homegrown terrorists.

But all this is of consequence to the people of India and even within the Congress, there would be many who would be reluctant to be a part of the "consensus" claimed by Mr Singh. It would be amusing to watch the Prime Minister pretending prime ministerial overreach, had it not been for the potential damage he is likely to inflict, unless restrained, on the country's present and future.

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