Foreign Policy magazine thinks Manmohan Singh is one of the 12 most powerful Indians. It would be a terrible commentary on our state of affairs if, as prime minister, he weren’t on that list. That said, most Indians today are disillusioned to see their PM not deploy some of that attributed power to arrest the gangrene that has eaten into effective governance. Few commentators or intellectuals defend the PM.
One of the fiercest criticisms of the PM is how he has done little to prevent, if not directly cause or abet, the atrophy of autonomous institutions. The recent accusation that the cbi’s report into Coalgate was doctored to keep the stain from besmirching the PMO is just another example. “It started with the appointment of Navin Chawla, someone described by the Shah commission as a ‘tyrant’ and someone totally obnoxious from the democratic point of view, as the election commissioner. Then came the attempted appointment of a tainted P.J. Thomas as the CVC. Now there is talk that he will appoint someone pliable as the new CAG,” says Delhi-based commentator Arkalgud Surya Prakash. “I will give him zero out of 10 when it come to safeguarding the independence of institutions. We have to do a lot of repair work after he leaves.”
|“The PM must provide political leadership at critical times, not silence when a response is needed. This doesn’t help towards a positive conclusion on him.” B.R.P. Bhaskar, Trivandrum-based commentator||“With Manmohan, the bureaucracy has become stronger and...the government too. In that sense, he represents the rise of the executive and the decline of Parliament.” Ranabir Samaddar, MCRG, Calcutta|
|“His greatest flaw has been mistaking personal morality for constitutional morality. Can one man’s integrity save the government from scams and cover up venality?” Niraja Gopal Jayal, Professor, JNU||“While he had political cover in 1991, support for his policies was lacking in UPA. An honest, knowledgeable PM can’t deliver decisively without political clarity.” Barun Mitra, Director, Liberty Institute|
|“People thought he’d represent globalisation with a human face, but he has been negligent of the abject condition of the poor. He represents Congress landlordism....” C. Lakshmanan, Associate professor, MIDS||“What good is his personal integrity when he is messing up with the entire system? His softness of speech and manner shouldn’t be mistaken for integrity.” A. Surya Prakash, Political commentator|
|“He has undone old institutional checks and balances, like allowing his cabinet committee on development and disinvestment to overrule the environment ministry.” Akhil Ranjan Dutta, Assoc Prof, Gauhati Univ||“Though the failure of UPA-II is more systemic, due to lack of equation between allies, he failed to prevent crony capitalism. He is not a very strong person.” G. Gopakumar, Prof emeritus, Kerala Univ|
When he came in as PM in 2004, Manmohan rode the crest of public support for someone ‘clean’ to tidy up politics. That idealism has dissipated. It has made way for infectious scepticism, with scams and crises cropping up with frightening regularity—all under his watch and with him evidently doing little to assert his authority to rein in erring colleagues.
The disillusionment runs particularly deep in Assam, from where he has been elected to the Rajya Sabha, and for which people expect the PM to use his authority to help solve some of the state’s many crises. “Whether acting on the concerns of Assamese over the construction of the Lower Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh, effective management of floods, removal of afspa and supporting civil society-led peace efforts with ulfa, Manmohan has done little,” says Akhil Ranjan Dutta, associate professor of political science at Gauhati University.
While people concede that Manmohan has not been personally implicated, the heat of probes into the Coal and 2G scams, they say, hover dangerously close to the PM. Moreover, his defence of A. Raja and the fact that he, as Union coal minister, failed to prevent the great plunder have helped little to redeem his image. “He is definitely...unparalleled as an economist, but as a politician he has played no role in controlling his colleagues. He left the managerial aspect to Sonia Gandhi,” says G. Gopakumar, emeritus professor at Kerala University. C. Lakshmanan, assistant professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, adds, “He made no attempts to assert himself as the person holding the PM’s high office. Instead, he has maintained strategic silence on important issues.”
Manmohan did speak up at times after criticism for his silence. His delayed reaction to the December gangrape in Delhi, coupled by his “Theek Hai” gaffe, seem to lend credence to the argument proferred by many—that he’s out of touch with popular sentiment. Public mood is reflected when Mumbai University political science professor Surendra Jondhale says, “He is not a political animal. He does not have a mass base, neither does he have a strong political acumen. This is probably why he can’t understand the political momentum of the country.”