By Swapan Dasgupta
If Delhi's political grapevine is any indication, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did something quite unusual last Sunday: he apparently threw a minor tantrum. The reason was understandable and anyone in his position would have done the same. The PM apparently expressed his profound displeasure at Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh's sound bite-a-day politics that culminated in the assertion that it "it is time that Rahul (Gandhi) becomes the Prime Minister." According to those who claim to know his mind, Singh was agitated that this statement, read with Diggy Raja's earlier sniper attacks on the Government and its senior ministers, implied that PM didn't enjoy the full backing of his party and was running a lame duck administration. In short, he was awaiting the day the Congress' other General Secretary deigned to get real.
True, Digvijay was subsequently made to clarify that what he really meant was that Rahul was first in the queue to succeed the good Doctor but that (perhaps tragically), there was no vacancy. What Diggy's clarification, Sonia Gandhi's subsequent meeting with the PM to discuss the impending ministerial reshuffle, the Congress Working Committee meeting's disapproval of the growing incoherence in the party and the Cabinet's approval of price hikes for diesel, kerosene and cooking gas together meant was that the PM had clawed back some lost political ground.
Manmohan Singh doesn't still convey the impression of a man who is totally in charge. But he seems a little more in charge than he was a week ago. Although being discharged from ICU doesn't imply that Singh is now King, it does indicate that at 41, Rahul has other, more interesting, things on his mind.
If the PM is to avoid a repetition of this summer's turbulence in the next quarter, he has to take advantage of the small window of opportunity available to him. It is too much to expect that the controversies over how best to fight corruption will be resolved in a satisfactory way with yet another Anna Hazare fast. The issue has degenerated into an ego battle between Team Anna and Team Congress and the stalemate is likely to persist until both sides come to the realisation that neither of them can presume to speak for the nation.
However, delinked from the Lokpal battle are other growing concerns that have left the political class unmoved. The economic indicators tell two stories: first, the tale of an India that is underperforming and, second, the tragedy of attaching importance to decision-makers who know the delights of profligate spending but haven't acquired the capacity to generate income. For nearly a decade, India had to convince both itself and the rest of the world that it had the political will, the human capital and the vision to aspire for a better quality of life than what Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi bequeathed to the country. Once the country had demonstrated it could move well beyond the self-deprecating 'Hindu rate of growth', the saboteurs have returned with a vengeance.
To be fair, the PM's instincts on the way forward for an economically vibrant India are broadly correct. Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh is merely the PM, a post whose importance has been drastically devalued in the past seven years. Real decision-making vests with the UPA chairperson and her nominated kitchen Cabinet, the National Advisory Committee. The NAC has played a seminal role in blunting India's entrepreneur-led growth and shifting the focus to welfare spending. There is nothing strikingly original about this shift: it is the hoary European-style socialism, packaged in an Indian garb and couched in the misleading slogan 'inclusive growth'.
The grim reality that should be evident to the PM is that there is a high national cost to be paid to an economic regime centred on entitlements, give-aways and sops: they divert resources from asset-creating investments and sustainable growth. If the PM and the wise among his Cabinet colleagues actually approve the Rs 80,000 crore show of the Lady Bountiful act involved in the proposed Food Security legislation, India could well be entering a fiscal crisis that can only be countered by punitive taxation and rising indebtedness. Along with the MNREGA that has directly contributed to food inflation, a Food Security Act will ensure that there is little money left in the kitty for investments in infrastructure, health and education. India will be compromising its tomorrow for Sonia Gandhi's political today.
The PM doesn't have the political wherewithal to stop the Sonia-NAC assault on India. But he has been a good economic bureaucrat who knows all the babu tricks of survival and subterfuge. He can use the limited respite he has earned—thanks to Rahul's preoccupation with his personal wellness—to pursue an agenda set by those who see beauty in poverty. Alternatively, he can quietly subvert a disastrous agenda through old fashioned bureaucratic subterfuge and await India's impending impatience with flawed dynastic rule.
The PM is said to be concerned about his legacy. He now has a choice of bequeathing to his successor an India that remained untrue to its potential. Or, he could still be remembered as the man who, when confronted with a choice between subverting India and defending it, chose wisely. The PM should just a deep breath, grab the opportunity and do the right thing. He, not the lady, has the upper hand this quarter.