Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Second Dictatorship

The PM's former media adviser Sanjaya Baru released his book, discussing his five years at the PMO and what can be called the rise and fall of Dr. Manmohan Singh. In 1991, when Singh was described as the architect of economic reforms that transformed India (it was actually PVN Rao who pushed the reforms through), he was feted by the middle class. In 2004, his ascension to the PMO was celebrated and for that, in 2009, the Congress was returned with an enhanced seat tally. And in 2014, when Manmohan Singh has announced his retirement, he is an object or ridicule, a textbook case of poor leadership and, in some cases, a figure of hatred against the UPA regime. What went wrong - how did a man, who this blog declared Indian of the Year, become a man who this same blog declared a troublemaker just a few years after?

The answer lies in Baru's book and it is one person - Sonia Gandhi. In 2004, Sonia Gandhi was clearly looking to be PM but she could not. Not did not, but could not. She had no choice but to make Singh the PM. The first five years were fairly good, with Singh being able to work with Gandhi. The first crisis possibly came over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, when Gandhi seemed ready to ditch the deal to save the government. It was then that Singh put his foot down - "As long as I am Prime Minister, I will not let these communists dictate foreign policy." It was this resolve that firmly put the PM on the middle class' radar. Data shows that in 2009, one of the major reasons for the Congress' huge victory was a massive shift of middle class votes towards it - a clear and decisive failure for LK Advani, whose 'Advani for PM' campaign failed to even retain the BJP's traditional voters.

But the rot began from there - the victory was incorrectly attributed to the family and Sonia Gandhi worked to bringing the PMO under her control. Pulok Chatterjee was her principal ally in this by taking files to her for clearance before they were 'forwarded' to the PM. The last five years of UPA-II can thus be called India's second dictatorship, the first being the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. The difference is that in the first dictatorship, it was overt: press censorship, misuse of the law and order system and debasing the Constitution and its institutions for political gains.

By contrast, the second has been more covert, with the vestiges of democracy being kept in place but being systematically destroyed from within. Journalists are no longer jailed - they are recruited through Rajya Sabha seats, Padma awards and plain old money; Constitutional institutions are being degraded by packing them with loyalists and people with clear conflicts of interest. Parliament has become a rubber stamp, with party leaders making all decisions behind closed doors and the government not even caring to listen to the opposition. Unlike the last dictatorship, whose effects were cleansed by a historic election, this one has created a rot that runs so deep that we might perhaps never know just how badly the country has been affected by it.

The biggest lesson from Baru's book is that, while we mock and ridicule Manmohan Singh for failing to rise up and provide leadership despite having one of the longest tenures as PM, we must not forget who was really behind the mess. For, if we do, we will once again make the mistake of a dual-power center, one that takes all the blame and one that makes all the decisions - one that has no powers and one that has no responsibility. This model has been the greatest mistake that Indians have ever made, one whose effects cannot be entirely reversed by any future administration in just five years. 

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