A curious feature of the scams affecting the government is that they haven’t undermined Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s position as much as may have been expected.
Instead, there have been words of praise for him from political adversaries like Nitish Kumar and Subramanian Swamy and a neutral admirer like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. The Congress, too, has stood by him although it is no secret that Arjun Singh’s virtual retirement does not mean that Manmohan Singh no longer has any critics in his own party.
A major reason why the prime minister has managed to survive is because of the TINA (there is no alternative) factor in the Congress where he is concerned. Neither Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee nor Home Minister P. Chidambaram has the image or stature to step into his shoes although their competence as administrators cannot be doubted.
Even if there have been calls from within the party for Rahul Gandhi to take charge, the heir-apparent himself seems unwilling to shoulder such an onerous responsibility at this stage. Besides, it will obviously be unfair to saddle him with the task of steering the government out of its present difficulties, whose complexity and impact on the composition of the ruling alliance can unnerve even a seasoned politician.
Sonia Gandhi herself might have taken charge. But, having renounced the prime minister’s office in 2004 and handpicked Manmohan Singh, it would look odd if she decided to replace him even if the Congress and its allies supported the transition. Moreover, she must be aware that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will lose no time to rake up the issue of her foreign origin again, thereby adding another controversy to the present ones faced by the government.
Apart from the TINA factor, there is another reason why Manmohan Singh still remains the Congress’s best bet in spite of being battered and bruised by the allegations of having turned a blind eye to the various scams. It is his personal integrity to which even his opponents have testified. It is also an attribute which is not shared by anyone else in the party, except Defence Minister A.K. Antony.
But the latter is too low key a person and lacks the charisma and personality to be a prime minister. His power base, too, is far away in Kerala. Besides, the BJP is bound to raise the issue of his Christianity to claim that Sonia Gandhi is extending the grip of her ’Rome raj’, a phrase used by Narendra Modi and others, over the entire country. It is worth recalling that Modi had seen a similar religion-based link between the former chief election commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, and the Congress chief at the time of the 2002 Gujarat elections.
For all practical purposes, therefore, the ’accidental’ prime minister, which is how Manmohan Singh described himself after taking charge in 2004, has virtually become irreplaceable - at least for the time being. However, some of the implications of the turn of events, which the Congress and its president could not have anticipated in 2004, may not be welcomed by everyone in the organization.
For one, it can no longer be said with certainty that Rahul will automatically replace Manmohan Singh in 2014, as was earlier expected, since a great deal may happen in the next three years, especially if the prime minister pushes his reforms agenda with greater vigour. Besides, considering that there is no question of Rahul taking charge at present, it may be asked - certainly by the party’s opponents - whether someone who showed no interest in the post at a time of crisis deserved it after the situation had stabilised.
For another, Manmohan Singh may recover some of his lost political standing if the cases against the guilty in the various scandals lead to exemplary punishment. Considering that he has promised that political influence will not save anyone, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) can at last be expected to act like a truly autonomous and professional outfit. Besides, the Supreme Court’s supervision will compel it to ignore political interference.
For a third, after all the criticism that the prime minister has faced for caving in to coalitional pressure, the only way he can refurbish his reputation is to pursue the one issue - after the nuclear deal - which is close to his heart, viz. economic reforms. This pro-market policy is bound to face opposition from the socialists within the Congress, but Manmohan Singh knows that if he is again seen to be temporizing, BJP leader L.K. Advani’s jibes against him about being weak will gain credence.
There are signs already that he wants to follow the so-called neo-liberal line from the way the Prime Minister’s Office has been diluting some of the left-of-centre initiatives of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, such as the food security bill.
The prime minister’s position will also stabilise if the Congress makes the expected gains in the forthcoming assembly elections. While the party’s success is reasonably assured in West Bengal along with its partner, the Trinamool Congress, and in Kerala and Assam, it is uncertain in Tamil Nadu, where its ally, the DMK is mired in the scandal involving its party member, Andimuthu Raja, the former telecom minister at the centre. But three out of four is not a bad score.
Notwithstanding the dark clouds hovering over the prime minister and the Congress at present, the future may be less gloomy.