By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a British parliamentary tradition that India should seriously consider adopting: the Prime Minister's Question Time. Each Wednesday the House of Commons is in session, the PM has to answer questions posed by the Leader of the Opposition and backbench MPs for 30 minutes. These 30 minutes are potentially harrowing for any PM, including glib performers like Tony Blair and David Cameron. The reason is that there is no advance intimation of the issues likely to be raised, and these could range from a sharply-worded poser on some aspect of foreign policy to an indignant demand to know why a local hospital had been closed. Like the Boy Scouts, the PM has to 'be prepared' for every eventuality.
The purpose of PM's Questions is not merely to showcase a verbal duel between the leaders of two political parties—the best debater doesn't always prevail at the general election. The idea is to institutionalise the accountability of the PM as the head of the entire Government. Individual ministers carry their departmental responsibilities but the buck stops at the PM. He is accountable for the entire Government and he has to know its every arm.
It is a commentary on the state of Indian democracy that Manmohan Singh's interaction with the editors of TV channels last Wednesday was accompanied by a degree of satisfaction that the PM had finally broken his silence. That the PM had actually chosen the path of reticence in the face of a political crisis of enormous magnitude was itself intriguing. Surely, he owed the people of India and its Parliament some explanation. That he chose to route his version of current developments through a regulated televised interaction—after mildly berating the media for sapping the nation's self-confidence with its focus on the negative—is even more revealing. Since the PM is naturally media-shy and one-liners don't come to him naturally, the choice of forum suggests an even greater discomfiture with the chaotic and insolent ways of Parliament.
The choice of occasion and platform is, however, an incidental footnote. What is far more significant is the manner in which Singh has subtly redefined the role of a PM in the age of coalitions. That he is not the grand, imperial PM in the style of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and, at a pinch, even Atal Behari Vajpayee was well known. The circumstances of his appointment to the top job were different and unique. At best, and not least on account of his seniority and intellectual erudition, he was expected to be primus inter pares (first among equals). The tragedy of Manmohan Singh is that he has recast the position of the Prime Minister as a departmental head: the man responsible for the ministry called Prime Minister's Office.
Had Constitutional improvisation been allowed, Singh should have been re-designated as Chairman of the Cabinet. The prefix PM is ill-suited to him.
Unfortunately, this is a reality that many in this country have not yet fully recognised. Many of the questions thrown at him by the editors were premised on the belief that Singh occupies the hallowed post of PM as the country has known it. Why, he was asked, did he reappoint A.Raja to the Cabinet in 2009? Why did he not take proactive steps to stop the Commonwealth Games loot fest? Why was he so tardy in ensuring the cancellation of a sweetheart deal between ISRO and Devas?
These were questions based on flawed assumptions. They were about as flawed as the automatic equation between, say, the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and his descendant Emperor Shah Alam. On paper they were both Mughal emperors who the same grand titles. But, did Emperor carry the same meaning in 1765, when the East India Company was allowed to exercise its sovereignty over Bengal in the Emperor's name, as it did in 1603 when Sir Thomas Roe pleaded for permission to trade?
To be fair, Singh didn't try to pretend what he was not. He confessed that "some compromises had to be made in managing coalition politics" and that his choice Raja in 2009 was dictated by the wishes of M.Karunanidhi. But he didn't object because "I had no reason, frankly speaking, to feel that anything seriously wrong had been done." On the 2-G spectrum sale, he admitted to his personal preference for the auction route. But when Raja cited the endorsement of the TRAI and the Telecom Commission for the first-come-first-serve route, Singh said "I did not feel I was in a position to insist (on) auctions."
The conclusion is obvious: as the head of one department, Singh was loath to tell another department how to go about its business.
Likewise, wouldn't it have been presumptuous for the PMO to tell ISRO and the Department of Space how to go about its S-band transactions? Yes, there was a lot of foot-dragging between the decision to scrap the contract in July 2010 and perfecting the paperwork. But the PMO wasn't involved; it was all the doing of the space babus.
Only, in this case the Minister for the Space Department was the same as the Minister in charge of the PMO: Manmohan Singh.
Singh conceded to "irregularities" in the Government and an "ethical deficit". But he wasn't responsible. Maybe the PM was. But, does India have a PM?