A new Manmohan Singh takes a bow (Comment)

The man who seemed incapable of raising his voice has changed. The soft-spoken Manmohan Singh is no longer as mild-mannered as before. Behind the amiable exterior, a hint of steel is now visible, as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) leader L.K. Advani learnt to his cost in the Lok Sabha Wednesday.

When the BJP leader accused him of conducting secret, back-channel negotiations with Pakistan, the prime minister reminded him of the series of similar talks which Jaswant Singh, foreign minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, had with Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state at the time.

It is surprising that Advani tried to provoke Manmohan Singh considering how the latter had silenced him last year by accusing the BJP leader of shedding helpless tears even as the Babri Masjid was being demolished in his presence. That stinging riposte was the prime minister’s answer to the continuous efforts by Advani and his party to portray the Indian prime minister as ‘weak’ before last year’s general election. After the results were out, the BJP acknowledged that its charges had misfired.

That was the period when the prime minister gave the first sign of his toughness by sticking to his guns on the nuclear deal despite the reservations expressed by his own party and some of its allies. Even if Rahul Gandhi’s support for the deal finally persuaded the party to support the measure, it was Manmohan Singh’s advocacy which played a crucial role.

That was also the period when the prime minister did not flinch when the Left withdrew its support to the government for ‘selling out’ to American ‘imperialism’ even though it meant going to the polls without this ally of four years. Since then the Congress victory and the setbacks suffered by the Left and the BJP have strengthened his position. As a result, evidence is mounting about his intention to chart out his own course in domestic and foreign policies.

It is obvious, of course, that but for the ‘back channel’ support extended to him by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, the prime minister would not have been able to pursue his line with such determination. But the two Gandhis may have also realised – from the nuclear deal affair which swung the urban middle class back to the Congress from the BJP – that Manmohan Singh is in sync with the new generation.

Even if on some issues, like peace talks with Pakistan, he may be pushing a line which does not have wide support because of the Mumbai massacres and the subsequent outrage in Pune, the fact remains that he is willing to stick his neck out on what he considers the right step. ‘Dialogue is the only way forward for civilised countries to resolve their problems,’ he said in parliament.

He may be doing the same on the question of introducing genetically modified foods as well since the strong lobby against them seems to have succeeded for the time being in turning public opinion against them for being unsafe. But since the prime minister believes that GM foods are the way to a second green revolution, he is unlikely to give up the battle just because the introduction of Bt brinjal has been stalled for the present.

But the step which shows how determined he is to stand firm against populism is evident from his refusal to roll back the fuel price hike. Any move to increase the prices of petrol and diesel has always been extremely difficult in India because the opposition politicians immediately seize upon the issue to express concern for the ordinary people.

Their familiar charge is that the higher transportation charges will lead to an increase in food prices and add to the inflationary spiral. Because of the populist nature of their stance, the government is usually forced to roll back the prices. The possibility of such a retreat was all the greater this time because two of the government’s allies – the Trinamool Congress (TC) and the DMK – were in favour of a reduction of the prices even if it meant imposing a crippling burden on the oil companies since the international prices are ruling high.

But Manmohan Singh’s firmness has compelled both Trinamool and the DMK to tone down their rhetoric and promise to continue supporting the government. Their backing is all the more important because the Left and the BJP are dropping their allergies towards one another – the Left calls the BJP ‘communal’ and the BJP dubs the communists pro-Chinese – to join hands against the common adversary, the Congress. The Left and the BJP were also on the same side of the fence in their opposition to the nuclear deal.

The other issue on which the prime minister has shown his firmness is the drive against the Maoist extremists although the Left liberals argue that the root cause of ending the exploitation of tribals has to be addressed first before taking on the Maoists. Otherwise, many innocent tribals will lose their lives in the crossfire.

The other view is that the Maoists have been able to set up a ‘red corridor’ over a large area of the hinterland because of the government’s earlier failure to assess their strength. Any delay in tackling them will only help them to consolidate their position by befriending as well as terrorising the tribals.

If Home Minister P. Chidambaram is the front man for the anti-Maoist operation, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee is dealing with the fuel price hike. But everyone knows who is the inspirational force behind these definitive moves.

There is little doubt that no other prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru had the courage of conviction to provide purposeful governance. P.V. Narasimha Rao may have initiated the economic reforms with Manmohan Singh as finance minister. But that was an unavoidable response to a balance of payments crisis.

For Manmohan Singh, the reforms are a matter of ideological conviction even if the pace has been slow because of the Left’s earlier resistance and the subsequent recession, which is ending only now. The nuclear deal, too, has marked the end of the era of non-alignment and the resultant prolonged cool relations between India and the US.

The prime minister has been lucky, however, in having as his party chief a person like Sonia Gandhi who has given him a free hand after choosing him as the man to head the government in 2004.

(06-03-2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

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