Foreign Policy Blogs

Has Manmohan Lost His Mojo?

Has Manmohan Lost His Mojo?

Manmohan has seen better days

In calendar terms, it’s only been a short time.  In July 2008, Manmohan Singh courageously placed his premiership on the line and won a dramatic no-confidence vote in the Indian parliament over the U.S.-India civilian nuclear accord.  Back then, he was lauded as the country’s “Lion King” and (borrowing from the Bollywood movie) shouts of “Singh is King” filled the air.  The Australian newspaper called him “one of the greatest statesmen in Asian history.”  A year later, he went on to become the first Indian prime minister in decades to win re-election, an unexpected political victory he hailed as a “massive mandate.”  It’s been just half a year since Newsweek magazine placed Singh on the top of its list of the world’s top 10 leaders and praised him for “inspiring awe among his fellow global luminaries.”  Mohamed El Baradei, now back in the news for his role in toppling Hosni Mubarak, extolled him as “the model of what a political leader should be.”  And only three months ago, Forbes magazine ranked him 18th among the world’s most powerful people – between Apple’s Steve Jobs and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But those heady days must seem like the distant past to the increasingly beleaguered Singh.  Nowadays, he’s been reduced to denying that he’s a lame duck or intends to resign from office.  And The Financial Times is upbraiding him for “squandering the nation’s future through a lack of political will” – an opinion that many inside India and beyond are coming to share.

Singh’s hapless lot was on vivid display in his televised press conference last week.  Looking worn and at times rattled, he responded to questions about the telecom scandal now engulfing his government and eroding his reputation for sound judgment and competent management.  His interactions with the press are rare and his advisers presumably arranged the occasion to project an image of confident if unassuming authority.  He wound up sending the opposite signal, however.  At times he admitted implicitly that he has no control over his own coalition government and even his own Congress Party.  Elsewhere he resorted to reading prepared statements in response to sharp questions.  Far from dictating the pace of events, Singh now appears to be dispiritedly reacting to their flow.   (For more on Singh’s leadership traits, see Madhavi Bhasin’s post below.) 

In his remarks, Singh all but acknowledged that his authority as prime minister is derivative.  In reply to a query about why he reappointed Andimuthu Raja, from Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, as telecommunications minister when the whiff of corruption already surrounded him, Singh confided that he had no real choice in the matter.  Blaming the exigencies of coalition politics, he explained that “I did not feel that I had the authority to object to Mr. Raja’s entry” [emphasis added] into his own Cabinet.  This utterance caused the Wall Street Journal to exclaim that “it’s more than embarrassing when the leader of the world’s most populous democracy throws his hands up at the hijinks of his own ministers.  Accountability is clearly breaking down. India cannot be taken seriously on the world stage when its prime minister doesn’t have the power to speak on the country’s behalf.”  The Mint newspaper concurred, noting that Singh’s “inability to steer the government and tame the more reckless of his colleagues is now undeniable.”

The Prime Minister also intimated that the now-rescinded decision to resist opposition demands for a full-fledged parliament inquiry into the scandal – resulting in months of legislative paralysis – laid somewhere other than in his hands.  Of course, all of this underscores what has long been known: Sonia Gandhi, the cautious head of the Congress Party, is the real power behind Singh’s government. 

To be sure, Singh does not lack for tenacity or grit – his actions in the tumult over the nuclear accord with Washington attest to this.  But unlike his predecessors, he lacks an independent political base that enables him to crack the whip against recalcitrant colleagues in the Cabinet or the Congress Party.  He is not even a member of the Lok Sabha, the directly-elected lower house of Parliament, but rather a member of the Rajya Sabha, the indirectly-elected upper house.  He has stood for direct election just once in his life, in the 1999 parliamentary elections, and lost badly.  He is also the accidental prime minister – chosen by Sonia Gandhi when it became clear that her selection as PM would be problematic.  It was telling two months ago when the Raja affair was gathering steam that P. Chidambaram, Singh’s long-time associate and now his home minister, recommended that Gandhi conduct regular reviews of the Cabinet’s work – a proposal that The Times of India explained as akin to making her a “super Prime Minister.”  Singh’s meek admission that he does not call the shots in New Delhi only confirms his subordinate position.

Singh’s remarks before the media that the BJP’s “hostile attitude” is responsible for the lack of movement on the next generation of economic reforms are also incredible.  The real roadblocks are from within his coalition government, particularly the Trinamool Congress and the DMK, as well as the Congress Party’s risk-averse apparatchiks.  Ironically, the very success of the economic transformations that Singh set in motion two decades ago have only reinforced the status-quo orientation of his party colleagues.

The next few months will tell whether Singh has irretrievably lost his political mojo.  A first indicator is whether the now agreed-upon inter-party inquiry into the Raja scandal will be enough to allow the legislative process to resume as normal for parliament’s critical budget session that has now commenced.  A second signal will come in the character of Singh’s forthcoming budget plan.  In his comments to the media, he vowed to press ahead with crucial items on the reform agenda.  We will see whether the budget he tables matches this rhetoric.  My guess is that it won’t.

Singh also promised another Cabinet shake-up following the budget session, which concludes on April 21.  The reshuffle he announced last month was widely panned as cosmetic and unimaginative.  And so a third signpost will be whether he actually follows through on this vow and thoroughly cleans house.  A fourth indicator has to do with the outcome of the state elections that will take place in the coming months, including in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  If, as expected, the Congress Party loses significant ground in these states, then the clamor for Singh’s ouster may reach critical mass.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.