By Swapan Dasgupta
There was a fleeting moment during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's interaction with the media last Monday when I imagined he was going to use a dreaded c-word in the context of relations with a neighbouring country. However, before the word left his lips he checked himself and fell back on a safer usage: 'competition'.
I did not get to hear the PM say 'conflict' to describe a sticky situation with our eastern neighbour. What I did get to experience in the conference room of Race Course Road, however, was the precision and calculation that moulded each of Singh's pronouncements. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi who was prone to be casual in his usage or Atal Behari Vajpayee who could never resist a poetic double entendre, Singh chooses his words with utmost care, cutting out all flab. His verbal missteps are rare.
This clinical approach to public pronouncements—rare in a political world where hyperbole rules the roost—may be a factor behind Singh's incredible political longevity. The PM has often appeared non-threatening because he has carefully shunned the extra adjective. For a man so accomplished, he doesn't mind being regarded as a paper tiger.
The Congress Party is no doubt aware of the PM's unique attributes. Despite his image as a political lightweight who counts for little in electoral politics, the party has stuck by him for more than six years. There have been numerous frontal and sniper attacks—some orchestrated others spontaneous—on individual ministers but so far the PM has been left out of the line of fire. The reason is obvious: Singh was Sonia Gandhi's nominee for the top job and as long as he enjoys her patronage, the Congress will treat him as a holy cow.
Over the past few months this arrangement has been disturbed by what appears to be an orchestrated onslaught by leaders claiming to speak on behalf of the Congress against senior Cabinet ministers in the UPA Government. Whatever may have prompted Digvijay Singh, Janardhan Dwivedi and Keshava Rao to openly express their anger with P.Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, the impression has gained ground that the regime has become dysfunctional. There is a suggestion that the 'civil war' has been occasioned by the heir presumptive's apparent coming of age politically.
By suggesting that the "Congress is not an ordinary political party; it is a mass movement", the PM attempted to locate the divergence in a historical context. This explanation may not have too many takers, considering the legacy of the post-1969 Congress, but it does suggest that the PM is sufficiently worried by the impression of 'drift' that he felt the need to counter it.
A flat denial that there is no dissonance between the UPA Government and the Congress was only to be expected. However, the mere fact that this was accompanied by the broad hint of a Cabinet reshuffle before the next session of Parliament and a categorical assertion that retirement wasn't on his mind suggested that conflict resolution could include a few decisive steps.
At the risk of over-interpretation, a number of stray indicators are worth considering. First, at his media interaction, the PM was at pains to clarify that he was second to none in his determination to confront the Maoist threat, having first alerted the country to its damaging potential as far back as 2006. He supplemented this commitment with the observation that Home Minister Chidambaram was doing "an exceedingly good job"—a testimonial that is sharply at odds with the perceptions of some leading Congress functionaries who regard him as "arrogant" and insensitive.
Secondly, replying to questions centred on the pro-active posturing of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Singh was appeared to tread the middle path. But read with his categorical assertion that the only way to bridge the gap between the two Indias was through industrialisation, and his determination to not revert to the licence-permit raj, there was an implied admission that Jairam Ramesh may have gone a bit too far.
A veiled rebuke of Ramesh is by itself not very significant politically. Singh, after all, also admitted that the Ministry of Defence led by the venerable A.K. Antony was also dragging its feet on much-needed arms purchases. But there is a difference between Ramesh's crusade and Antony's prevarication. Ramesh had used the Sonia-led National Advisory Committee and the grandstanding of Rahul Gandhi in Orissa's Kalahandi district to give additional political weight to his spate of non-clearances. In linking Ramesh's generous over-use of the environmental veto to the re-emergence of another licence-permit regime, Singh was more than expressing his displeasure: he was implicitly questioning the wisdom of the NAC's thinking.
The PM is disinclined to make casual comments. What he said last Monday may not have been scripted but they had been carefully thought through. In both his defence of Chidambaram (not merely the individual but also his management of the Home Ministry) and his indictment of environmental over-zealousness, Singh had a direct political message to his party. He seemed to be suggesting that every individual claiming privileged access to 10 Janpath doesn't have a monopoly of correctness in a broad church party.
This appears to be an audacious contradiction of the assumptions on which the Congress has hitherto proceeded. Whether Singh was gently testing the waters or indicating that he can also be his own man is a matter of conjecture. Conventional wisdom would suggest that he was signalling to the Gandhis that their hounds had to be tamed—a very diluted version of his threat to resign in 2008 in case the Indo-US nuclear deal was sacrificed at the altar of expediency. The PM probably feels that after six years in office and an election victory he deserves some respect and more functional autonomy. The Cabinet reshuffle should indicate whether or not he has got his way.