By Swapan Dasgupta
The Moghul emperors, like many of the crowned heads of the late-medieval world, loved grand titles. It was customary for a Jehangir or a Shah Jehan to be ushered into court with a flunkey announcing the arrival of the “King of Kings”, “Light of the universe”, etc.
At the height of Moghul grandeur, when the House of Timur was truly a great player on the global stage, these pompous assertions carried credibility. What was incongruous, indeed laughable, was the persistence of these grandiose delusions during the reigns of, say, Shah Alam and Bahadur Shah Zafar. But persist they did, right till the last day in 1857.
It is remarkable how these ridiculous facets of ‘ornamentalism” has withstood the transition from Empire to Republic. In the 1970s and 1980s, no reference to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was thought to be adequately respectful unless it was preceded by the term ‘dynamic’. During the Emergency, D.K, Barooah equated Indira with India, and Kalpnath Rai, another Falstaffian Congress leader, equated Rajiv to a diamond.
For the past eight years, ever since Manmohan Singh was appointed Prime Minister by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, it has become mandatory for everyone, not least the media, to preface any assessment of the man with references to his learning, erudition and impeccable integrity. Not that these lofty testimonials were always contrived flattery. It would be fair to say that most Indians, particularly middle class Indians, held the Prime Minister in both awe and respect. In 2009, the BJP misread the public mood horribly and launched a strong attack on the ‘weak’ leadership provided by Singh. The electorate rejected the accusation resoundingly and re-elected the UPA.
The past three years has seen a significant shift in the public mood. The early Moghul rulers, from Akbar to Aurangzeb, cannot be equated with the later Moghuls who were either hostage to marauding chieftains or pensioners of the East India Company. Likewise, popular perception has come to distinguish between the architect of liberalisation who rose to be Prime Minister and the tragic figure who presided over the transformation of India from being the great hope to becoming the greatest disappointment.
We can still preface every reference to the beleaguered PM with allusions to his learning, erudition and integrity. But these terms of endearment carry about as much conviction as heralding the state entry of Bahadur Shah Zafar with cries of him being the “Light of the Universe”. This being a more democratic age, the allusions to the PM’s greatness is likely to be reviled and, worse, mocked. The contentious Washington Post report was actually being generous and respectful: Manmohan Singh is on the cusp of being laughed into the pages of history.
Just examine the Prime Minister’s sagging reputation since August 2010, the month that saw the Commonwealth Games controversy erupt. At that time the PM was merely singed and all the opprobrium was heaped on a professional politician who had made the Indian Olympic Committee his fiefdom. The charge against the PM was that he had failed to appoint an effective Sports Minister who would be able to keep Suresh Kalmadi in check.
After the furore over the CWG came the huge 2-G explosion. In this blast, the PM suffered second degree burns. The belief that the rigged first-come-first-served was essentially a DMK scam was widespread, although the likes of Kapil Sibal ensured that the Congress was not insulated from the ignominy. However, it was also clear that the PM was kept in the loop by A.Raja and that he chose to look the other way because of “coalition compulsions”. In short, it was established that the PM was not averse to letting expediency get the better of his otherwise fierce sense of right and wrong.
The 2-G scandal has been followed by ‘Coalgate’, involving a ministry where the PM was the minister in charge. The Government may have scored a few goals against the BJP by highlighting its disruption of Parliament. But these have been offset by the growing evidence that the Prime Minister’s Office cannot be detached from the calculated prevarication over shifting from discretionary allotments to auction-based lease of coal blocks. The most recent disclosures even suggest that the willingness of the Coal Ministry to shift to auctions was stymied by the PMO’s insistence on discretionary allotments to well-connected individuals. In other words, the charge of crony capitalism hitherto levelled against venal ministers who have had to resign and face imprisonment, has been laid at the doorstep of the PM.
In the case of Coalgate, the PM has suffered third-degree burns. Now, with the accused falling back on his right to silence, hHis reputation has been seriously disfigured, He is now on a political life support system.
The defenders of the PM can still try and make the case that it was a Chandigarh syndicate that pulled the wool over the eyes of a trusting leader. It may even be argued that the poor PM, an innocent when it comes to the murky world of politics, was merely ‘following orders’ from some mysterious higher authority. Unfortunately, such pleas are certain to prompt further questions whose answers could show the PM in a very unflattering light.
Sunday Pioneer, September 9, 2012