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The Man Who Lost His Charm


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“We do not wish to discount the personal integrity of the candidate. What we are emphasising is that institutional integrity of an institution like the CVC (Central Vigilance Commissioner) has got to be kept in mind while recommending the name of the candidate. Whether the incumbent would or would not be able to function. Whether the working of the Institution would suffer”

—The Supreme Court on the appointment of PJ Thomas as India’s CVC


The architect of India’s economic reforms, one of the most admired leaders in the world, the man responsible for seeing the UPA return to power—till recently, wherever he went, the man’s reputation preceded him in a way that any leader anywhere would envy. It was a reputation reinforced with his undoubted financial integrity, an effective shield not just for him but for the entire United Progressive Alliance, especially in times of crisis. Why Congress President Sonia Gandhi picked him as her candidate for Prime Minister in 2004 was obvious to all. But in the past half-year or so, things have changed. At least in Delhi. What precedes the man these days is something else: voices lowered to hoarse whispers in polite gatherings and raised to enraged shouts in Parliament.

Dr Manmohan Singh is not used to this. But he has little choice. Questions are being asked that reflect not just on his legacy, but also on the current task of governance. What once gave him force is giving him headaches, and what were strengths appear to be turning into weaknesses.

Read the quote above, replace the CVC with the PM, and the Supreme Court’s opinion still seems to hold validity. The moral principles it lays down can well apply to the Government in the context of the 22 July 2008 trust vote in the Lok Sabha that saw the UPA scrape through and survive well enough to win a second term at the hustings a year later. “Institutional integrity, as laid down by the Supreme Court, applied to this case would mean that the PM should be held directly responsible for the bribery,” reasons senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, who was the lead petitioner in the case against Thomas’ appointment as CVC, as also the one who put the Radia tapes on record at the Supreme Court in the 2G spectrum scam case. He contends that the PM cannot “merely wish away his culpability in the bribery case related to the 2008 trust vote”.

The Court’s CVC directions, though, were meant for the three-member committee headed by the PM that had recommended Thomas. Within hours of the order, Thomas, who had stubbornly refused to resign until then, stepped down; this news was especially significant because a CVC once appointed can only be ejected from office through a long-winded process involving the apex court and President of India. The significance did not escape Dr Singh, who declared that he “accepted full responsibility… of the error of judgment” in clearing Thomas’ name for the post.

As embarrassments go, what lay in store for the Congress was greater still. Barely a fortnight later, a fresh round of Wikileaks revelations stormed the capital. Leaked US diplomatic cables dispatched from New Delhi spoke of an aide of Congress MP Satish Sharma, once a close crony of the late Rajiv Gandhi, having boasted to a US embassy official of all the cash the party had gathered—even showing him the money—to buy votes for the 2008 trust vote on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Given that tens of thousands of cables have been released by Wikileaks without anyone challenging their authenticity, this was not a leak easily dismissed. As for the credibility of this particular embassy report, well, the details are far too vivid for an American official to have conjured them five days before the vote.

Yet, even as the leaks rocked Parliament, the PM vehemently denied the charge that bribes were ever paid to secure his government’s survival. “No one from the Congress or the Government indulged in any unlawful act during the July 2008 trust vote,” he said. “How did the people respond to these (bribery) allegations? The principal opposition party, which had 138 seats in the 14th Lok Sabha, had only 116 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha. The Left tally was reduced to 24 from 59. Only the Congress increased its tally from 145 to 206, an increase of 61 seats,” Dr Singh said, taking a dig at opposition parties. He also said that a committee set up earlier to probe the allegations (which had first surfaced right after the 2008 vote) “had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to draw any conclusion of bribery”.


In a fortnight, the PM had swung from a posture of taking the CVC fiasco on his chin to a mix of feigned ignorance and assertive defiance on the cash-for-votes issue. Yet, it’s hard to deny that the Wiki revelations offer corroborative testimony in the case that would form more than just another piece of the 2008 jigsaw puzzle.

The Nuclear Deal may have reshaped India’s foreign policy, and it may be too early to judge whether it’s been for better or worse—with India’s ease of access to nuclear energy squaring off against a sudden unease with the idea of splitting atoms for electricity after Fukushima —but it is easy to forget what was bargained away in the process. The numbers that Dr Singh cited in Parliament were achieved through a combination of factors. The PM’s own ability to push the Deal through in the name of national interest and Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s appeal among young voters played important roles, no doubt. Yet, there was another interesting aspect at play: the Left, while providing external support to the UPA, was able to catalyse the UPA’s efforts on legislations like the Right to Information Act and National Rural Employment Guarantee programme. For all its problems with the Left, it is no coincidence that it is precisely these governance and welfare measures that are cited as the UPA’s biggest achievements. This is so even in its own publicity campaigns.

Whatever anyone may say about the Left’s thrust in terms of policies, it seems clear that some of the erosion of the institutional integrity that the PM’s office is expected to uphold took place the day Manmohan Singh lost the Left’s support. Had this political divorce not happened, perhaps the PM would not have found himself in the unenviable position of a leader being spoken of the way he now is—as someone who let a scam-accused minister into his Cabinet in 2009 under the fig-leaf of “coalition compulsions”. The Radia tapes show quite clearly what was underway as Dr Singh held out against pressure to include A Raja in the Cabinet but eventually gave in after two days. It is scarcely possible to imagine the same kind of lobbyists, journalists and power brokers at play if the Left had been involved.


The opposition wants Dr Singh to step down, charging both him and the UPA Government with being “principal beneficiaries” of the 2008 bribery. The BJP even moved a privilege motion against the PM for claiming that the Parliamentary Committee that went into the vote-buying allegations had said there was insufficient evidence of bribery. “It is not my case that the Prime Minister was economical with the truth—he is completely at variance with the truth,” says the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “What is the basis of saying ‘bribes not paid’ when the committee’s report clearly says so. Is it not dereliction of duty on your part that you do not refer the matter to an investigation agency? Why has this government tried to conceal the truth?” he asks, pointing to the committee report’s recommendation of a probe into the matter by an appropriate agency in the larger national interest.

“The PM is saying he was not aware that money was being paid,” continues Jaitley, “Has he not read this report? Has he not seen the videos of bribe givers entering an MP’s house? Has it weighed on his conscience ever in the last two-and-a-half years that he procured a majority through such dubious means? And rather than gag the opposition and conceal the truth from the public, is he now willing to accept moral responsibility for this monumental blunder and quit office?”

Despite Jaitley’s contention that the PM and UPA-II have lost their moral right to rule, his own party poses no serious challenge to the Government at the moment. It’s not just about the gap of 93 seats between the Congress and BJP, the principal opposition party is just not ready for another round of polls.

On Tuesday, 22 March 2011, the BJP walked out of the Lok Sabha after the Speaker refused to accept a short duration discussion before taking up the Finance Bill (the Union Budget). Former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, speaking in the House, said that the BJP had “no intention of creating a constitutional crisis” by not letting the Finance Bill be enacted. This is classic BJP doublespeak, evident here as much as in another Wikileaks cable that details Advani and his party’s vacillations over the Nuclear Deal back then.

On one hand, the BJP insists that the UPA must step down immediately. On the other, it makes no effort to block the Finance Bill, failing to pass which is the constitutional equivalent of a trust-vote kind of defeat of the Government. If the integrity of the office of the PM is now under question, the integrity of the BJP as a whole is not—it doesn’t really have any.

The party needs to get its own act together before it can make a serious attempt at wresting power back from the Congress-led alliance and replacing it with another. What remains of the National Democratic Alliance that the BJP leads is now merely a handful of parties. The Bihar Assembly polls, in which the alliance romped home victorious once again, were fought with the BJP playing second fiddle to Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). Moreover, the BJP is apparently yet to come to terms with its general election defeat in 2004 (and yes, in 2009 too, though reality had permeated the BJP by then).

The four Left parties, with a total strength of 24 MPs in the Lok Sabha, are not likely to make Congressmen quake in their shoes either. They now command less than half their strength during Manmohan Singh’s first tenure. In public discourse, ‘the crucial 60’ has given way to ‘the marginal Left’, seen as too heavily embroiled in its own muddles in its bastion states of Kerala and West Bengal to influence politics at the Centre anymore, let alone worry the Congress. This is true to a large extent, and the upcoming Assembly polls in these two states are unlikely to alter that. They may even weaken the Left’s overall clout, forcing these parties into self-searching mode in the aftermath of elections that are not expected to go their way (at least not in West Bengal). Preparations for the party congresses of the CPM and CPI, don’t forget, are scheduled early next year.

In any case, the Left parties are in no position to revive the idea of a third front, of which they would have to form the nucleus. Even the probable constituents of a third front are too scattered to come together and pose a threat to the UPA-II Government. The Samajwadi Party (SP) of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who commands 22 MPs in the Lok Sabha, is more interested in aligning with the Congress for next year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh than playing any role in oppositional politics.

In fact, the SP is still paying for its about-turn that led to its becoming a staunch defender of the Deal. For Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati, who galvanised the political scene in Delhi by joining hands with the Left in the run-up to the 2008 trust vote, preparations for UP’s Assembly polls remain all too crucial to spare any time for another political adventure at the Centre.

All this offers respite to Manmohan Singh. The absence of a threat in the shape of political forces ready to overthrow him, however, should not be mistaken for a shield from the kind of political sludge that is now being flung at him. This is a real crisis for Manmohan Singh, the severest to have hit the Congress party, if risks to its reputation for the long term are taken into account. Even in terms of day-to-day issues of governance, the Government is now looking more and more directionless by the day, and the UPA sounds more incoherent than ever.

The Congress is to blame for that. The grand old party’s relationship with the three major UPA allies—DMK, Trinamool Congress and NCP—remains far from satisfactory. In the past fortnight, the Congress has forced the DMK to accept its terms for seat-sharing in Tamil Nadu, even as it capitulated to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. In both cases, the relationship has been strained and is sure to suffer in the future.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) President Sharad Pawar, meanwhile, is busy being himself as usual, missing no opportunity to sling the Congress with muck. Nor is the moral support that Manmohan Singh is getting from Amar Singh much good for his image. In his blog, the former SP leader has come out against Wikileaks’ revelations and in support of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal that was once held in fear if not awe by his former party (before its own U-turn). The cables, he blogs, are as worthless as the infamous Jain diary that was once used by the Narasimha Rao Government (1991–96) to slap hawala cases against several political leaders, none of whom could be convicted since the entries in the diary failed to stand legal scrutiny.

Such support is the last thing Dr Singh would want. All said, one’s reputation is forged by the choices one makes. And the more consequential these choices are, th

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