Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Manmohan Singh beats Gujral... I hope he is not beaten by someone in future

It is difficult for a historian of politics to desist from making assessments of leaders of the past. It is also difficult to resist the temptation of using superlatives in such assessments. Let me admit now that such temptations are better resisted. If not, one is bound to land in trouble. I say this out of my own experience and the trouble that I am now in.

I had thought, until some times ago, that Inder Kumar Gujral was the worst of the Prime Ministers that we had in the short history of our nation. For those who grew up in the past decade, Gujral was Prime Minister of India for a short period of seven months between April 21, 1997 and November 28, 1997.

In that short while, Gujral established the lowest ebb to which the office of the Prime Minister could be taken to. He looked the other way when three members of the Union Cabinet went about organizing violent agitations against the CBI. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Kanti Singh and Jai Narayan Prasad Nishad, all followers of Lalu Prasad Yadav and members of Gujral’s cabinet were actively organizing agitations stopping trains and blocking roads against the CBI. They all believed that Lalu Prasad Yadav was above law. Gujral, after all, could not have turned ungrateful. He was a MP and PM only because Lalu Yadav helped him to be all that.

It did not matter to him that he was whittling down the authority of the Prime Minister. Let me clarify. Lest I be mistaken. I am not arguing that the Prime Minister behave like a commander of forces or turns a tyrant. That was what Gujral’s leader, Indira Gandhi emerged into and her actions cannot be held as an example of a strong prime minister. A strong Prime Minister, in a sense, is one who does not let things drift and when pushed against the wall or into a corner say that he committed a wrong and that it was an error of judgment.

Well. Gujral was the weakest Prime Minister we had as a nation. I will now qualify that the statement held until Manmohan Singh arrived on the scene. One remembers the sad spectacle he made of himself within a couple of months after he became the Prime Minister in May 2004. Shibhu Soren, among his cabinet colleagues, was served with an arrest warrant on charges of murder from a Jharkhand Court. Soren went into hiding. Sadly so, the Prime Minister was unable to even contact his cabinet colleague and ask him to resign. Gujral did have a similar problem when Chandradeo Prasad Verma, then a union minister, was chargesheeted in the fodder scam cases and it took some time before the Prime Minister could even ask Verma to resign.

Manmohan Singh too, managed, after a couple of days, to convey the message of propriety to Soren. But then, Singh emerged into a leader and even showed signs of a determined fighter, willing to stoop down to any level and engage with Amar Singh when push came to shove in the case of the 123 civil nuclear deal with the US. November 2007 saw Prime Minister Singh show all signs of a powerful political leader and unmindful of anything. So much so, elections 2009 were fought by the Congress-led alliance with him as the leader.

Anyone who happened to witness him speak in the Rajya Sabha this past week, explaining his position on the appointment of P.J.Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner, will necessarily wonder whether our Prime Minister is such a helpless person and in that event bound to be scared of his or her own safety in this country and the fate of the nation itself.

He said that he was unaware of any case against Thomas when he went in for the meeting to decide on his appointment. He trusted Prithviraj Chavan, then Minister of State for Personnel and now Maharashtra Chief Minister whose office had forwarded the list of three names including that of Thomas from which the CVC was to be selected. Manmohan Singh, however, admitted that Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a member of the committee that selected the CVC informed the committee that Thomas had a case against him and that involved charges of corruption. Singh was so much helpless that he just presumed that Sushma’s information was incorrect and that Thomas was a good man.

He could have put the meeting on hold, asked his secretary or anyone who was in an adjacent room, to verify if Sushma Swaraj was up-to-date or that the information was incorrect. He did not. I will not believe that our Prime Minister does not have even a secretarial staff on whom he could have leaned that day. I know that he has a very loyal, assertive and efficient press secretary in Harish Khare; I know Khare used to proclaim, once in a while, his commitment to democracy and probity in public life apart from preaching many other things. He could have found out if Thomas was un-blemished.

The fact is that Manmohan Singh did not care for probity and the past record of Thomas. The Supreme Court found that out and set aside the appointment and then we find Manmohan Singh declaring that he respected the verdict (as if he had a choice) and that he committed an error of judgment and that he was unaware of Thomas and his past and the Palmolein Scandal. Well. Manmohan Singh will be the worst and the weakest Prime Minister this nation has ever had and all that I wish is that one does not have to revise this opinion. In other words, we do not discover someone who beats Dr. Singh in the way he has beaten Gujral.


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