So Manmohan Singh is smarting at L K Advani's barbs about his being the weakest Prime Minister and is hitting out. Addressing members of the Indian Women's Press Corps on Friday, he boasted that he would have quit if the Indo-US nuclear deal had not gone through and that it was his firmness that saw the deal being signed. And of course he took potshots at Advani's record as home minister - citing the Kandahar hijacking, the attack on Parliament etc.
A bad back prevented me from going to the IWPC do, but if I had gone and had got a chance to ask him a question I would have asked him this: Mr Prime Minister, you are the one of the key architects of economic reforms in this country. When you took over it was widely recognised that reforms needed a big push. But the Left stalled you at every point. Why did you not exhibit this firmness when crucial reforms that would have done far more to make this country economically strong were stalled? Why did you buckle under Left pressure each time?
I have no opinion for or against nuclear power or the deal. But when I saw the government striking unholy deals with an unholier party (the Samajwadi Party) just to stay in power after the Left withdrew support over the deal, I wondered whether it was worth it. I have dealt with this in my previous posts, Hypocritical Compromising and Nuked by Ambanis.
Another post, Reforms RIP, had pointed out the various economic reforms measures that are pending. If Manmohan Singh had made this as much as a prestige issue as he did the nuclear deal, the country would have benefited far more.
But let's get back to the point about Singh being the weakest Prime Minister. Do we really need an Advani to point this out to us? It isn't about succumbing to Left pressure (one can argue that Atal Behari Vajpayee also succumbed to coalition pressures on several occasions during his prime minister-ship). But Singh provides so many other examples to prove that he was a weak Prime Minister and that he devalued the office itself.
# Let's face it, Singh and Sonia Gandhi may go blue in the face denying it, but she always had a veto power over any major decision - from appointment of ministers to crucial policies. I'm not talking about ministers from coalition partners, but Congress ministers. Most of them owed their loyalty more to Sonia Gandhi than to Singh. Some were decent enough not to make that evident. Many were not. One Congress minister himself lamented to me about the loose cannons from the Congress in the cabinet. Singh couldn't do anything about them. And what could be more galling than to see a Sikh Prime Minister (and one who is supposed to have been extremely upset about the 1984 massacre) helplessly take Jagdish Tytler, an accused in the killings, as a minister and then to have to see him refuse to resign for several days even after the Nanavati Commission indicted him.
# Neither Singh nor Sonia Gandhi may have had a choice in terms of choosing ministers from the coalition partners, but once they were in was Singh doing enough to see that they performed properly? The answer clearly is No. T R Baalu, the surface transport minister, just wouldn't let the highways programme proceed smoothly even when the economy was in dire need of pepping up. But the Prime Minister could do nothing. Baalu kept fighting with chairmen of the National Highways Authority of India and had several of them changed in the five years that he was a minister. Surely Singh could have put his foot down on this and refused to transfer them? But he didn't.
Take also the example of health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. The Prime Minster watched helplessly as the minister hounded the AIIMS director, P Venugopal. This reached ridiculous levels when the Supreme Court had to direct Ramadoss to sign degree certificates of graduates (the minister had refused to sign them because the director also had to sign them and he didn't want his signature along with Venugopal's). Affected doctors had to go to the Supreme Court as the absence of degree certificates was adversely affecting them. Did the Supreme Court have to intervene? Didn't the Prime Minister know about this? Couldn't he have intervened and insisted that Ramadoss sign them?
# The crowning glory in all this is perhaps the un-edifying spectacle of the Prime Minister going with a bouquet to the airport every time Sonia Gandhi went on a foreign trip.
I rest my case.