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Friday, January 21, 2011

A much familiar weapon

Manmohan Singh's reshuffle has invoked pity and mirth

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the great paradoxes of the democratic way is the public yearning for strong, decisive leadership. The great 20th century heroes in non-totalitarian societies have either been saints (Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) or leaders with a marked touch of imperiousness (Charles De Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher).

India is no exception to this trend. Jawaharlal Nehru may be greatly admired by the liberal intelligentsia for his seminal contributions to the creation of democratic institutions. However, opinion polls have repeatedly confirmed that Indira Gandhi—whose democratic credentials were always suspect—remains, in the popular imagination, India's most admired Prime Minister. Her authoritarian conduct did result in a fierce electoral backlash in 1977. But that is because she broke the rules of the game with the Emergency. In general, however, her determined and haughty style of leadership was admired. The aam aadmi (if such a creature does indeed exist) revelled in the realisation that Mrs Gandhi was both respected and feared within her own party. She was, as former West Bengal Chief Minister Prafulla Chandra Sen feared and protested to the Syndicate when they first nominated her for the top job, truly a Ma Kali.

The importance of both fairness and fear in governance and political management was always acknowledged by imperial administrators in India. In his critique of what he perceived was the Viceroy Lord Irwin's generous accommodation of Mahatma Gandhi, Churchill told a rally of Empire loyalists in January 1931 that "It is never possible to make concessions to Orientals when they think you are weak or are afraid of them. If they once think they have got you at a disadvantage all their moods become violent, concessions are treated as valueless, and necessary acts of civil repression often only add to the flames."

It is no longer 'correct' to make broad generalisations based on ethnic or national stereotypes. However, Churchill's understanding of the behaviour of "Orientals" can be contrasted with other societies where fierce individualism is the norm, and where over-bearing leadership pays limited dividends, except perhaps in times of war.

On July 13, 1962, for example, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, hitherto an epitome of unflappability, did something completely out of character: at one stroke he sacked seven members of his Cabinet. The casualties of that 'Night of the Long Knives' included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord Chancellor, the Education Minister, the Defence Ministers and the Ministers responsible for Scotland and Wales. It was a political massacre, the likes of which had never been witnessed in Westminster. "I feel my neck all the time", Rab Butler, who escaped the massacre, confided to journalist Harold Evans, "to see if it is still there."

In his 'official biography' of Macmillan, Sir Alistair Horne suggested that the drastic action was actually prompted by something that, in hindsight, seems fairly routine: economic sluggishness. "By the summer of 1962, Macmillan reckoned that, like the human body, the British economy had developed a certain resistance to most medicines." The Prime Minister merely wanted to change the Chancellor of the Exchequer but he was also under public pressure to inject some new, younger blood into the Cabinet. In a moment of rare impetuosity, he decided to combine these two very different imperatives and ended up sacking one-third of his Cabinet.

The results were not rewarding. Far from being perceived as a leader who actually led, the Cabinet changes were seen as an indication of Macmillan's own vulnerability. "It astonished me", Lord Kilmuir the outgoing Lord Chancellor wrote in his memoirs, "that a man who had kept his head under the most severe stresses and strains should lose both nerve and judgment in this way…" Macmillan was later to describe Kilmuir as the "stupidest Lord Chancellor" but in this case the assessment was not wide off the mark. Macmillan's approval ratings fell from 47 per cent to 36 per cent in nine days. In hindsight, the Sunday Times headline "His own executioner" proved remarkably prescient.

The negative reaction owed to two factors. First, the impression that the Conservative Government's troubles, however grave, did not warrant a revolution; and secondly, that playing butcher was not part of the job description of a patrician Prime Minister. It was the larger understanding of the personality of Macmillan, rather than any British penchant for moderation that made the drastic reshuffle seems excessive and governed by personal considerations.

No such opprobrium was attached to the equally drastic reshuffle undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in September 1981 that led to the sacking of the Foreign Secretary, Education Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords. Thatcher's motives were unabashedly political: she wanted to recast the Cabinet in her own ideological image. This may not have been to the liking of the Tory grandees but it corresponded to her emerging 'Iron Lady' image. In short, a ruthless overhaul was something Britain expected from Thatcher. She was Britain's Indira Gandhi.

In normal times, there would have been few expectations of drastic change from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last Wednesday. Despite the Indian penchant for decisiveness of the Mrs Gandhi variety, past precedent wasn't an encouragement. The Kamaraj Plan that led to the redeployment of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai and S.K. Patil for party work hadn't been a great success; Mrs Gandhi's sacking of Desai as Finance Minister in 1969 triggered a chain of events that led to the Congress split; and Desai's dismissal of Charan Singh in 1978 deepened the fissures within the Janata Party.

Unfortunately, these are not normal times. In the 20 months since its re-election, the United Progressive Alliance Government has its way and become mired in corruption, mismanagement and non-performance. Despite the eight per cent growth of the economy, there is a recognition that India is slowing down due to the non-removal of infrastructural bottlenecks. In addition, far from regaining its status as the dominant party, the Congress has failed to make inroads in North India and has been seriously undermined by self-goals in its strongholds of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. A ministerial overhaul doesn't automatically address the problems of economic sluggishness and political disarray but is seen as an index of political resolve to address the decline.

Manmohan Singh has in the past withstood charges of weakness by juxtaposing it to decency and personal integrity. Unfortunately, the recent kerfuffle over corruption has marred the Prime Minister's image because he has been seen to be wilfully looking the other way. To redeem his own reputation, he had to be seen to be doing something that indicated that his core values were also the values of the Government. In short, he had to be seen to be retiring those who were either becoming a liability or were considered deadwood. The country expected a Night of the Long Knives.

Tragically for the Prime Minister, last Wednesday's much-awaited and much-hyped exercise has proved farcical. He has been shown to be lacking the political clout to drop even a single minister, including Manohar Singh Gill of 'Punjabi wedding' fame and those whose health prevents them from playing any meaningful role as ministers. Worse, he implicitly acknowledged the inadequacy of this reshuffle by promising another one after the Budget session. Where an axe was called for, he waved the all-too-familiar babu weapon, the transfer order.

Macmillan invoked disgust; Mrs Gandhi invoked shock and awe; but Manmohan Singh's reshuffle has invoked pity and mirth. Governments can withstand criticism but they are powerless to confront ridicule.

The Telegraph, January 21, 2011


Anonymous said...

There was this remarkable cartoon published much earlier in a Tamil Weekly.

PM Manmohan Singh telephones Nira Radia & asks " I came to know there is going to be a cabinet reshuffle. Could you tell me who gets what including my portfolio?"

Let us face it. We the aam janata have been more than comfortable with not just corruption but also deplorable mediocrity at all levels. For inordinate lengths of time. Narrow & crude interpretations of 'patriotism/nationalism' have wrought such damage.

Indira Gandhi who ill informed Indians are fond of glorifying took a lot of quick decisions but all "wrong decisions" as someone wrote.

We Indians have this sickening penchant of choosing good for nothing people as our role models/mentors.

Anonymous said...

Since you mention Indira Gandhi , the following facts are extremely imperative.

It was none other than the Seer of Kaanchi Kamakoti (Senior Pontiff/Maha Periyavaa) who consistently condemned the looting of Hindu Temples by government of India. Hence He sent an Emissary to Indira Gandhi asking her to make the appropriate amendments in Indian constitution pronto.

She refused.( Today art of living SSSSRavishankar & many such clones are misleading the people as though they are the ones whose hearts bleed for looting of Hindu Temples;)))

After her defeat she came to Kaanchi Mutt demanding a private meeting with Kaanchi Mahaperiyavaa.

Which was not granted. After she left, as is the wont of Indian writers, "intellectuals" & journalists a lot of canards were spread.

The Seer when pressed by one of His attendants for the reason replied thus:-

" The very purpose of This Mutt is to enforce Veda Dharmam . My requests , counsel , suggestions get disregarded by those wielding power & authority. Hence how can I have anything else to discuss or talk with any of them including Indira Gandhi ?"

This message is equally important for the BJP also. They also lack committment & sincerity.

This is where the Muslims command my respect when pitted against us the Hindus. Their zeal & committment. I often wonder , if only they get to enforce Veda Dharmam probably our Temples would be managed better.

Their ultrazealous adherence to erroneous interpretations of jihad leading to suicide bombings etc , if DEFLECTED & STEERED to Kaanchi Seer's Teachings , Upanishads might work wonders. My personal musings-- that is all.

Anonymous said...

Let us not hasten to conclude that DMK has been rebuffed by Congress High Command in this charade of reshuffle.

DMK entered into a deal with Congress that at State level elections Congress should not try to upstage DMK. That is all.

Congress and DMK are equally guilty in this Spectrum scam.

But remain unperturbed for a good reason. Just as Commonwealth Games files are allegedly "missing" , Spectrum files can also go "missing".

We the aam janata who are incapable of sustaining anger can be diverted by cricket matches , some feel good "patriotic" movies wherein the politicians in celluliod get pummelled by a solitary Indian hero. Plenty of wow dialogues & songs. Some free television sets and so forth.

Both have already achieved their targets. That of amassing money & remaining unpunished.

Anonymous said...

dear sd
sc know well that the size of looted funds available ,involved in abroad banks,2g etc,which matters are sized with sc,can improve lives of crores of indian poors,a biggest public interest,hence now maximum onus is on sc.
any prudent person can see that mms offered 2g loot to dmk,allowed and permitted it to be looted,deliberately,though having all powers to stop it,to buy his chair.any prudent person can realise that now mms has to try to destroy evidences,influence witness by hook or crook and he is allowed all powers for the same and the matters are sized with sc.for the same object mms appointed kapil,who is doing his job!the related 2g licenses,could have been cancelled to recover 2g loot,in largest public interest,but public again looted,though matters sized with sc,by this time kapil by regularising delay by nominal penalties!sc these are the occasions for which you are given powers to save helpless,looted,angry country/public,so that public is not forced to take law in their hands.

Raj said...

for me, a very entertaining and educative post, I see others have difference of opinion but not me, I am the aam admi of the variety who likes his leaders strong and courageous like Thatcher or Indira Gandhi (a perfect balance like Atal ji would be well, perfect). For all of their faults, these are the leaders who write history and when they end up on the history sheets it seems they were doing more good than bad. Manmohan Singh, well I hated him hard just for the way he walks like a robot from a 70s Hollywood movie and how he cant seem to talk with even a slight trace of confidence. And now in the past year I've hated him even more.

Pavan said...

Ok, Cong is going down. Is the NDA rising? Or will it allow itself to get "managed" by Cong again? Let us not forget that Cong has a very well trained Dirty Tricks Department that never sleeps

Anonymous said...

Congress is only trying [ and failing] to divert people's attention from its terrible failures on corruption, inflation and non governance.
People are not fools.Congress has lost heavily on every election after 2009.

SG said...

NDA should also reshuffle a that they can be a power to reckon with by 2014

Anonymous said...

Swapan with what Sushma & Swaraj did in the tiranga yatra, sidelining BJP youth wing to get into a limelight on a senseless issue, do you think BJP has even 10% chance of coming to power. These 2 nullified all the painstaking work done by Gadkari.

Anonymous said...

I concur with Anon @11:09AM.

The typical Indian mindset in politics is this excessive besottment with senior citizens.

Let them stay in the background proffering counsel when needed. Attend some pravachans by some Babas as India has plenty of them.The dubious criminals in godman ventures also refuse to fade away. Watch cricket matches , write memoirs , thumb through Bhagavad Geetha and go to sleep.

Be it Pranab Mukherjees, Chidambarams or Advanis & Sushma Swarajs the same faces spouting the same lines fill me with despair & ennui.

Is India is going to face a fractured mandate with parties negotiating with leftists again ? Oh God spare me !!

The wily Prakash Karat is holding talks with Jayalalitha.

Do we have no choice other than arrogant corrupt congress & weak kneed BJP ?

I am despairing because BJP does not have it in them to COMPLETELY DISABLE utterly useless Congress , DMK , ADMK and so forth.

As Swapan Dasgupta perceptively observed Narebdra Modi was moulded by Gujarati character.

I never expected Deoband Vastanvi would be forced to recant & resign. As I erroneously concluded Muslims have really " moved on ".

So what do we get in the end ? Same caste based reservations , concessions , religion based subsidies & perennial mollycoddling of parasites. Lots of fiery harangues by different 'leaders' "we will do this we will do that".....deja vu.

Modi & Nitish Kumar are good. But let us not underestimate the destructive harmful potential of congress , leftists opposition parties . Infighting within BJP itself also cannot be ruled out.

This is why I feel alleged Chinese invasion as is being ratcheted by Indian media might do us aam janata a lot of good in the end.

China is very pragmatic & no nonsense. Would not be cowed down by xyz religious fanatics.

As a disenchanted Hindu & citizen of India I could not care less about the safety or well being of most of Indian politicians. And corrupt Indians in all walks of life.

A combination of Israel-America-China would be highly welcome in ensuring good governance in India.

Anonymous said...

One is left wondering whether this uprising in Tunisia is to be cheered. As Tunisians have embraced the ultra orthodox brand of Islam. Womenfolk are jubilant about covering their faces & men looking forward to growing beards. Same happened with Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.

We hindus need to rethink about this hindu-muslim baibai formula. Will it ever work ?

Even today a lot of Indian muslims keep repeating ( sic)Hindus themselves set fire to Godhra Train.They resort to convenient amnesia harping exclusively on reaction termed "Gujarat riots".

I expected much more vocal support for Vastanvi. From "intellectuals" like Javed Akthars. Add to that Bangladeshis spread all over India.

Like consummate IDIOTS we the non muslims talk about "reforms & upliftment of oppressed muslims". But they are ever comfortable embracing sharia in tandem with wallowing in victimhood.

So they desire to have the cake & eat it too. Oversmart & overcrafty don't you think ?

Raj said...

Well Mr. Anonymous seems to have posted a lot of valid points on this post, all of which, I heartily agree with...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Raj.