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PM's far from a PhD in politics

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi | August 30, 2004

If top sources in the government are to be believed, the fiasco surrounding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's alleged 'rudeness' that resulted in the Opposition boycott of the Lok Sabha and the Finance Bill being passed without any discussion was the result of advice to the prime minister by two senior-most colleagues in the council of ministers.

According to these sources, just before the meeting with LK Advani and other leaders of the National Democratic Alliance, these ministers advised Manmohan Singh that the Opposition was out to sabotage the government's parliamentary agenda any way, so it was better to take a tough line.

Moreover, they warned the prime minister of the pitfalls of accepting a memorandum relating to the Budget which was, according to them, the result of cumulative pressures from various industrial lobbies. If you accept the memorandum, you could acquire the reputation of being a plaything of these lobbies, the prime minister was told.

Manmohan Singh decided his colleagues were better placed than him to understand the political intrigue that accompanies power politics, and decided not to accept the 'memorandum'. Maybe, a Chandrashekhar would have accepted the paper and given the leaders an earful.

Maybe, a PV Narasimha Rao would have kept the paper, photocopied it and started a CBI enquiry against the leaders. But Manmohan Singh, a democrat to the core and liberal to a fault, got saddled with a reputation for 'rudeness' for no fault of his.

And as the government lurches from managing one political crisis to another, 100 days of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government smack of ineffectual political management.

A big problem is managing a coalition. The biggest contingent of allies which is part of the government hasn't begun to articulate its demands yet. This is the bloc of Dravidian parties that among them, contributes 26 seats to the alliance.

When this government took over, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi told friendly reporters he had taken a vow of silence for six months to give the government time to settle in.

When the negotiations for portfolios began, a period of coolness followed because the Dravidian parties charged that assurance conveyed to them on the issue of portfolios had not been honoured. That controversy is now over.

The DMK has repeatedly vowed that it is committed to preventing the use of Article 356 and is hamstrung in that respect in that it cannot seek the dismissal of its arch enemy's government.

Nevertheless its MPs are restive. With a 100 per cent strike rate of UPA and allies in the Lok Sabha, they would like to use this opportunity to hasten the Assembly elections.

They say the government should do something to make Tamil Nadu chief minister's tenure a little shorter -- whether by raking up the chief minister's income tax cases or other means. Karunanidhi is all praise for Manmohan Singh, having dealt with him when the alliance between the Congress and the DMK was in the process of being forged.

But despite that there are minor irritants. The Centre appointed two additional Solicitor Generals in Tamil Nadu. One was Karunanidhi's choice.

The other was the son of a former Solicitor General of India whose father happened to have been Jayalalithaa's lawyer.

The central government has not replaced the state Governor which was one of the first things the DMK had told Congress interlocutors.

The other allies of the government -- the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party -- have their share of grouses against the government, but are keeping their ire well camouflaged.

The RJD is grateful for the PM's defence of 'tainted' ministers, but was unable to control one of its leaders, Devendra Prasad Yadav when he launched a diatribe against the Congress, the home minister and the prime minister in the Lok Sabha for discriminating against Bihar on the issue of relief for floods last week.

The attack was bitter, personal and left even opposition NDA leaders shaken. The TRS has warned that if the government does not make concrete moves on creating the Telengana state by December, it will quit the government.

The NCP takes a dim view of the tendency of the Prime Minister's Office to run the civil aviation ministry and virtually crossed horns with PMO on the issue of offering further concessions to Singapore on the eve of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's visit.

At least two Congress chief ministers -- O Ibobi Singh of Manipur and Amrinder Singh of Punjab -- have thumbed their noses at the prime minister by doing what suited them, but the prime minister has not been able to publicly assert himself.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil confessed in Parliament in both the cases -- of the act passed by the Punjab Assembly annulling previous water-sharing promises and the Manipur government's lifting of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in a part of the state -- that the state government had acted contrary to the advice given by the centre.

The prime minister's relationship with Congress President Sonia Gandhi is business-like but insiders say the role of interlocutors is important. Defence minister and one of the youngest members of the Lok Sabha, Pranab Mukherjee, observers say, has gained in stature since his election and is awaiting the right political opening.

Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh is earning brownie points with the Left parties by deconstructing the saffron web in the HRD ministry left behind by the NDA government and will be a Left favourite if an alternative to Manmohan Singh is ever contemplated.

All Manmohan Singh wants is to be left alone so that he can get on with the nitty gritty of work. But ministers say all the direction they ever get from him is circulars. The last one said: 'don't mess with PSUs'. The one before that said the same thing.

The power behind the throne

  • Home Minister Shivraj Patil said the Punjab abrogation of water treaties and the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in a part of Manipur was against the Centre's advice.
  • DMK chief Karunanidhi's decided to hold his fire for six months to let the government settle in.
  • If no moves are made to create Telengana by December, the TRS has warned it will quit the government.
  • The NCP crossed horns with PMO on the issue of offering further concessions to Singapore on the eve of PM Goh Chok Tong's visit.

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