Few would have thought that the
Manmohan Singh government would be floundering in the dark only a
year after the second successive general election victory of the
Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Instead, it was believed that with a higher majority and in the
absence of the obstructionist Left parties, it would be able to
consolidate its position and look forward with considerable
confidence towards a third term in 2014. In fact, the speculation
was that Rahul Gandhi would replace Manmohan Singh in that year.
All those dreams and aspirations have, however, gone up in smoke.
While the Congress stumbles from crisis to crisis, it is its arch
adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that is eager for the
next trial of strength, preferably before the scheduled year.
The reason why the Congress squandered the advantages of its 2009
success is a combination of complacency and inability to control
the coalition partners with a firm hand. Both flaws are
explicable. While its smugness stemmed from the disarray in the
opposition camp, the Congress' management of the alliance was
unfortunately characterised by far too relaxed an attitude,
especially towards allies that do not have the best of
Perhaps the reduction in the clout of earlier potential
troublemakers like Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and
Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) made it drop its
guard. The preoccupation of the Trinamool Congress, the Congress'
largest partner with 19 MPs, with West Bengal may have enhanced
The result was that it was not sufficiently vigilant about the
second largest ally, the DMK, which has 18 MPs. This was a fatal
mistake for which both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have to be
While Sonia Gandhi's insistence on sustaining the coalition meant
turning a blind eye to some of the peccadilloes of the allies,
Manmohan Singh's mildness made him commit the same mistake. As a
result, his USP of being a thorough gentleman became a
Nothing demonstrated this willingness to retreat before the
machinations of the allies more than the Congress spokesperson
Jayanthi Natarajan's continuing reference to the imperatives of
"coalition dharma" even when the Supreme Court was castigating the
then communications minister Andimuthu Raja for suspected venality
and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) was accusing the
minister of causing a mammoth loss of $40 billion to the exchequer
in the dubious deals relating to the allocation of second
It was only when the scandal appeared to be getting out of hand
with the judiciary asking why Raja was not being interrogated by
the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the prime minister's
name being dragged into the controversy through a petition filed
by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy that the minister was
finally asked to resign.
But by then it was too late. Coupled with the earlier scam
relating to the Commonwealth Games and others, including one about
a housing society in Mumbai which led to Maharashtra chief
minister Ashok Chavan's resignation, the burgeoning 2G telecom
spectrum scandal gave the impression that the prime minister was
not fully in charge.
What lent substance to this belief was the Supreme Court's
observation that Raja had ignored Manmohan Singh's advice on the
issue. "When the prime minister has expressed concern, overruling,
bypassing or brushing it aside is not proper," the court said.
Although the prime minister's personal integrity has not been
questioned, the belief has nevertheless grown that he is too soft
to deal with allies that are not exactly exemplars of probity. The
DMK is particularly culpable in this regard. It is virtually a
family enterprise run by an aging patriarch with two ambitious
wives, two squabbling sons and a daughter who is trying to secure
a foothold in politics, seemingly with Raja's help.
By allowing Raja to retain his telecom portfolio in 2009 after the
scandal had already surfaced, Manmohan Singh made his first major
mistake. A less pliable person would have stood his ground. But
not only did Manmohan Singh yield to the DMK's unreasonable
demands, he also unwisely let the tainted minister continue in
office for more than a year which has inevitably led to the
question why the prime minister was silent for so long.
Since the Congress is dependent on allies for survival in office,
an element of compromise is unavoidable. What has, however, been
missing is a realistic assessment of how damaging will be the
impact of such give and take.
By failing to assert his authority at the right time - sacking
Raja at least six months ago even if the prime minister was forced
by the DMK to make him a minister - Manmohan Singh has not only
harmed his own political standing but has also hurt the Congress
since it can hardly expect much popular backing in its present
The scene has become murkier following the leakage of telephone
conversations which were secretly recorded by a government agency.
These reveal the behind-the-scenes efforts to influence the
government by corporate lobbyists, former bureaucrats and media
personalities. It is after these leaks that one of India's most
respected industrialists, Ratan Tata, compared the government to a
banana republic with its implications of a country without rules
which is ideal for crony capitalism.
As a result of the initial delay in taking action against the
suspects, the present flurry of activity, with the CBI conducting
countrywide raids on Raja and his associates, can seem like the
antics of a headless chicken. Unless these quickly lead to arrests
and punishments of politicians and their friends, there will be
further erosion of the government's credibility.
is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)