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It's about the job, stupid

It's about the job, stupid

Author: Aditya Sinha
Publication: The New Indian Express
Dated: October 13, 2007
URL: http://www.newindpress.com/NewsItems.asp?ID=IEM20071012223210

In the spirit of our recent politics, your columnist puts tongue firmly in cheek and makes a revelation: the real reason why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost his nerve and chose to save his government. The choice before him, after the last meeting between the UPA and the Left front was this: either lose the nuclear deal, or lose the government and the nuclear deal. Rumours spread through Delhi suggesting that Manmohan was going to force the issue with the threat of a surprise resignation.

Instead, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Friday, both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan indicated that the survival of the government was a higher priority than the nuclear deal; that the government's term would last till 2009; and that disappointment (over the delay in the deal) was a part of life. Most people assume the turnaround - after Manmohan daring the Left to withdraw support and Sonia claiming she was ready for elections - is due to pressure exerted the past couple of days by UPA heavyweights Lalu Prasad and Sharad Pawar.

Reductio ad absurdum, however, realized that the reason Manmohan changed his stand - he was going to turn martyr and make a show of sacrificing power for the sake of principle, but now looks to sacrifice his self-respect for the sake of power - was because there really isn't any suitable post-retirement job that he can take up.

We assumed the sun was setting on Manmohan's ineffectual prime ministership and, choked with emotion, drew up some options for him. (Now, of course, we are choked with emotion because the nation has to endure his dynamic leadership a bit longer). Here is what we believe he could take up once he is ex-PM.

He could become a full-time Punjabi intellectual: It is certain that ten years from now, we will remember this prime minister as vividly as another Punjabi prime minister that we had ten years ago, Inder Kumar Gujral. He too had an air of inactivity; he too had no control over his cabinet; he too was at the mercy of the Congress president; he too had a bland gaze; and he too relied on a finance minister named P Chidambaram.

Why blame Punjab for these prime ministers, given that neither of them, despite their high office, could exert any influence on the state's assembly elections? They are proof that craving power is not the same as knowing how to wield it. After his tenure, Gujral tried cozying up to the Akalis so that he could return to Parliament; unsuccessful, he now loiters around Delhi's cobwebbed and moldy India International Centre. Manmohan can join Gujral's band of intellectuals as they discuss Pakistan's water problems, while across the road at the India Habitat Centre, a younger, dynamic crowd mulls over Pakistan's mullah problems.

He could return to Assam: It is always heartening to see a Sikh in a different corner of the country; it proves that there is, yea verily, unity in diversity. It is, however, disorienting to see that Sikh open his mouth and hear Assamese or Tamil tumble out. That Sikh, however, is not Manmohan; despite having 'lived' in Guwahati since 1991, when he undertook P V Narsimha Rao's mission to transform the economy, Manmohan has not learnt Assamese.

His defenders will argue that he adopted Guwahati as his hometown because he could not enter the Rajya Sabha from Punjab, which was at the time under President's Rule. An exchief minister, the late Hiteshwar Saikia, became his landlord, but Manmohan's not been much of a tenant. A smarter prime minister would have visited during festivals like Bihu or Durga Puja, or even during the annual floods; Manmohan's occasional visits are usually for the purpose of subjecting the already terror- stricken Assamese with a mindnumbingly dull speech.

But returning to Assam would entail facing irate neighbours who have been waiting for 16 years for their civic amenities to be improved. As Manmohan has this year been re-elected to the Rajya Sabha, he might have to actually devote his parliamentary time to showing how devoted an Assamese he has always secretly been. In the way that Sonia learnt Hindi, or Lalu learnt English, Manmohan might have to learn Assamese.

He could return to Pakistan: Last year, Manmohan tried to rush India into an agreement with Pakistan on Siachen that the army was none too happy about. So deft was his leadership that he could not overcome the national security establishment's opposition and make the breakthrough in bilateral relations that one Punjabi intellectual after another has sought.

It transpires that Manmohan was keen on a Pakistan visit for another purpose: a visit to his hometown, Gah, in Pakistan's Punjab, and to the Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, Sikhism's founder. No agreement, however, meant no visit. But Manmohan need not let failed diplomacy get in the way of a personal pilgrimage. He could take charge of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee; except that this post is appointed by the Pakistan government, and usually goes to a former ISI chief.

He could return to academia: Is this a good idea? Manmohan Singh is the kind of speaker who enables his audience to experience geological time movement. Reporting on his speeches is no less than swallowing a jar of valium (with the jar). Fortunately, his aides distribute printed texts of his speech. But what are the students going to do, however, when he starts speaking about debt management or Pakistani water problems?

To those who argue that this is an unfair assessment of the prime minister's elocution, we argue back that being highly articulate is central to leadership and management skills; squeaky and incoherent mumbling are okay for eccentric creative types or for prisoners of academic ivory towers. Given the volume of evidence of Manmohan's creativity, we must assume that academia suits him better. That way he can continue to fantasize about the country without bothering to visualise the people who populate that country.

There is one more option available to the prime minister once he leaves office, and that is, of course, the job of Editor-in-Chief of The New Indian Express. But that may appear too frivolous, and this column does have a serious point to make.

Now you can see why the prime minister chose to save his job, even though the nuclear deal was the only activity by his government that motivated him to missionary zeal - to the extent of daring the Left to bring down his government. Given the choices mentioned above, life outside 5-7, Race Course Road, doesn't look so rosy.

What does this tell us about Manmohan the man? A CEO who can't decide his own agenda isn't much of a CEO -but we knew that already. Perhaps it is maturity to not let the government fall on a single issue, but it is difficult to see this prime minister putting his heart into governance from here on. He hadn't accomplished anything till now; with all parties forced into election mode - even if it's a drawn-out one - it's difficult seeing him as anything but a night watchman. The moorings are lost; the drift will get worse.

Manmohan probably believes that by putting off the confrontation, he has saved both the deal and his government. He still hasn't learned his lesson about the seriousness with which the Left approaches issues. And if earlier he worried about losing the government and also the deal, he will soon realise that he's losing the deal and also the government. In politics, however, if you fear the loss of power, then you've already lost the battle. So you might as well start looking at your post-retirement options.

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