Why Would Manmohan Want to Resign?

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh (center), inspects the guard of honor

India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh (center), inspects the guard of honor prior to his Aug. 15 speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi to mark the 58th anniversary of India’s independence. (Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

A recent front-page report on business daily The Economic Times has been a subject of conjecture. According to the report, quoting insider sources in the government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India has expressed a desire to resign, a wish made in the presence of several cabinet ministers. The prime minister’s office issued a quick denial, which was expected. But, there is no denying that Manmohan has reason enough to be unhappy about the way matters have turned out in his government. Manmohan is known to be an emotional person and had wanted to resign several times when he was finance minister of India in the 1990’s.

In the latest instance, comparisons have been drawn with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan who declared that snap elections would be held in September when faced with resistance to reform measures he wanted to push in the House of Representatives.

Manmohan does not enjoy the same kind of leverage as Koizumi in either the existing Indian Parliamentary system or the power structure within the Congress party, to which he belongs. He can resign as prime minister, but the Congress can choose another one. However, several comments that have followed the Economic Times report have suggested that if Manmohan could have his way, he too would have liked to go back to the people, or else not be around.

Indeed, Manmohan was never expected to have an easy ride since he took over as the head of government. He has to manage not only the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), and the querulous coalition partners, the Left Parties, but also the pulls and pushes within the Congress party, and his ministers, two groups who owe their first allegiance to the Congress party president, Sonia Gandhi.

It may be recalled that Manmohan was hand picked by Sonia, who remains the main power center of the party and government. The post of prime minister was for the asking for Sonia following elections last year. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance took over from the B.J.P.-led government under former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in May 2004, after the Vajpayee government was voted out of power. In what was considered to be a political master stroke Sonia handed over power to Manmohan and has since perched herself as the higher moral force due to the “renunciation.’’ The opposition’s objection to Sonia’s origin (she is an Italian by birth) has also been blunted.

Nobody doubts Manmohan’s credentials as a professional economist, his reputation as a humble and honest politician — a rarity nowadays — or his ability as an administrator. However, in the more than a year that has followed, what has come to be questioned is his predicament as a political strategist, wherein abiding by what one believes is the right thing to do may not be considered the most politically prudent thing to do.

It is said that Manmohan’s list of complaints has been stacking up over time. For example, one standard approach that the Congress follows in taking on the B.J.P. is to remind the party of the same foibles. Thus, when the B.J.P. raised a shindig about tainted ministers (including railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, who faces grave charges in court), the Congress shot back about the number of leaders within the B.J.P. who have been charge sheeted and continue to be ministers. This doesn’t take things forward. It is believed that Manmohan wanted to rid his government of tainted ministers, including several with strong regional bases, but was overruled by Sonia. In the end, the qualities that made Sonia choose Manmohan as prime minister, her uprightness and the fact that she is a political novice without a mass base (and thus, not a threat) are proving to be the main sticking points.

Many observers have said that the recent tabling of the Nanavati report that points fingers at the role of several Congress leaders in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 has been the first political victory for Manmohan. Despite pressure to protect their own and pointing at B.J.P.’s Narender Modi instead (who oversaw the Gujarat riots in 2002), Manmohan apologized in Parliament for the riots and said that an inquiry would be conducted against the leaders mentioned in the report. Following his speech, union minister Jagdish Tytler, in the line of fire, resigned. However, such political victories by Manmohan are rare.

Indeed, it is being observed that Manmohan’s belief in prudent economic practice is increasingly treading on Sonia’s vision to emerge as a messiah of the poor (who vote in the largest numbers and who voted out the Vajpayee government), in keeping with her attempts to approximate her famous mother-in-law, the late Indira Gandhi. Although the leitmotif of Manmohan’s Independence Day speech — delivered from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi on August 15 — was the aam admi (common man), it is well known that his approach to dealing with the problem is quite different from Sonia’s.

Sonia and her team of advisors, who have been family friends through generations, have drawn out grandiose plans of rural employment generation (encompassed in the Rural Employment Guarantee Act), which have failed in the past.

It has been well documented that such attempts at direct government intervention to remove poverty have not led to productivity increases that result in the permanent social mobility of the poor. Instead, it makes the poor dependent on future government doles that cannot be sustained. Further, the implementation of such a grand scheme is always tardy. It also creates a huge constituency of corrupt petty bureaucrats and encourages cadre politics. This is apart from the fact that it blows a hole in Manmohan’s belief in fiscal discipline, with conservative estimates saying that it will cost the government over $10 billion to meet the targets set. However, because the scheme provides the right image of the government as pro-poor, it is assiduously pursued by Sonia, as it was by Indira.

Manmohan is in favor of creating an enabling environment in the rural sector through appropriate infrastructure and business opportunities, and is sustainable through the implementation of user charges as well.

However, Sonia’s quest to appropriate the poor is not rare in Indian politics. The overlap of rural-urban politics is being played out in the state of Maharashtra, where dance bars have been banned in Mumbai, and in the state of Karnataka, where the government is coming down hard on pubs/discos in Bangalore. The idea is to play to the rural galleries.

Sonia also continues carefully to craft her presence as the power-behind-the-throne, ensuring that the limelight remains on her. She is due to visit Washington in the near future, where a meeting with none less than President George W. Bush is being worked out through hectic diplomatic parleys spearheaded by the Indian ambassador who is loyal to the Gandhi family. This is despite the recent U.S. visit of Manmohan when he met Bush. Sonia’s meeting with Bush is being touted as a rare honor for a person who does not hold a government post. Sonia recently visited Russia where she was feted by President Vladimir V. Putin. A visit to Pakistan and a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf is also being worked out.

Even if Manmohan were to grant Sonia the leeway in managing rural politics (as was apparent in his Independence Day speech) through her pro-poor schemes and her building of independent bridges with foreign dignitaries, he still has not been able to push through economic reforms (in which he is an expert) that have a 300-million-strong constituency of support among the middle classes. The resistance here is from the Left parties, on whose support the government remains in power, and who make it a point to censure every one of Manmohan’s moves.

The expectations of high growth this year in the wake of good monsoons and a buoyant industrial and services sector can actually prove to be double-edged for Manmohan. It creates a constituency that clamors for more and has very high expectations of the government. Further, there are still the majority who have not benefited due to reforms and feel left out and angry with the government. (A quarter of the population is still below the poverty line.) Their concerns have to be addressed by ensuring that growth is broad-based. Although Manmohan has been able to push through reforms in several sectors, there is still a ways to go.

It is believed that Manmohan staked a lot on the disinvestment of public sector company Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., which was strongly resisted by the Left parties. However, in the end, and to his chagrin, Sonia sided with the Left and the process has been shelved. The Left parties also continue to criticize the foreign policy achievements of Manmohan’s government — improving relations with the United States, including a far-reaching nuclear deal, as well as taking the Indo-Pakistan peace process forward. It is quite apparent that the Left parties are driven more by regional politics where the Congress is the main opposition. They also fancy their chances of forming a third front in the future without the help of the Congress or the B.J.P.

Buffeted by such contrary forces, and given his emotional bent of mind, it does not come as a surprise that Manmohan is supposed to have expressed a desire to resign. It will yet be a sad turn of events if he is allowed to go. Manmohan is a good man committed to the cause of uplifting India, and a sane voice. What is needed is to bridge the chasms that have appeared between the dictates of urban-rural politics, the coalition partners and not least Sonia Gandhi. Manmohan and Sonia need to work as a team, arriving at the right mix of politics and prudence when the two contradict.