Thursday, September 29, 2011

Manmohan Singh, Mahendra Singh (Dhoni) – both in trouble; both need to re-invent….

Half way through his second term, the PM must surely must be wishing the story hadn’t played out this way. Half way through his playing career, Mahinder Singh Dhoni would be wishing the same. What should both these men do now that they have been pushed onto the back foot? How should they overcome the formidable opposition that they face? Can they recover at all or is the match pretty much lost?

It’s a striking similarity that both these valiant heroes are facing today. Err….make that past heroes. Till a year back, Manmohan Singh was the cleanest PM the country had every had; the economist who suddenly proved that a non-politician could successful rule India’s fractious political system. A man credited by winning the UPA its second term purely on the basis of his personal credibility. A man who showed he had the guts to stick his neck out when it mattered – by passing the Indo-US nuclear deal. A man who was regarded as one of the most sought after internationally – be it by Obama or by the G20 or the global financial institutions staring at a meltdown. Why, it was just last year that India hosted leaders of all the big five countries. The world seemed to be fawning over Manmohan Singh. It was the same with Dhoni. He could do nothing wrong till the recent England tour. He won India the ICC T-20 tournament in 2007, took India’s 5-day squad to the numero uno position and most recently won India the cherished ICC ODI trophy. In the IPL, the Chennai Super Kings entered the finals three times out of four, winning twice. Dhoni even won the CSK the Champions League T-20 trophy last year. Everything Dhoni touched turned to gold. Dhoni was rated as the coolest cricketing captain the game had ever seen. He was aggressive; yet never displayed an emotion on his face. He would push his team hard; yet would refrain from giving ball-by-ball instructions to his team. Both Manmohan Singh and Dhoni took India to the pinnacle of glory – the world preferring to laud their achievements rather than focus on the many chinks they continued to have in their armours.

In a short while, both men have been reduced to near failures. Dhoni has had the worst possible tour of England – losing every single game that had a result. His team is plagued by injuries. Worse, there is no respite. He has one tournament after another to face in the near future. No time to rest; no time to wrest control. Whatever he does, he has to do on the move. It’s the same with Manmohan Singh. India’s second-term winning PM has been ridiculed for being a puppet for long; while that hurts, what must hurt even more is that the opposition has finally found a way to hit him. His impeccable personal credentials about his personal integrity are intact; yet his inability to control a colleague who started off the entire 2G scam is being seen as another evidence of weakness.  His ministers appear to be squabbling in public. His boss was out of action. He was out on his own. And he’s now come out good.

Both men can argue that the world is being unfair to them. Dhoni can say that after so many years of success, there is bound to be some failure. Statistically, Dhoni is dead right. No one can succeed forever. There is no other cricketer who can turn in better results than Dhoni has done. Manmohan Singh may also feel that the media has been unkind to him. The media played along with a random 2G scam number which the CAG put out – but which, it now transpires, was surely more a political estimate than an economic one. The Chief Auditor– RP Singh – himself pegged the scam at a much lower Rs 2500 crores (read yesterday’s ET – such stories are hidden in the inside pages!). The CWG scam numbers have been highly inflated. More than a year after a Supreme Court supervised investigation, the charges against Kalmadi don’t even add up to Rs 200 crores – a pittance of the Rs 70,000 crores that was being brandished by the media and the “authorities” – and by the way, these are contract values, not corruption amounts. Manmohan Singh may argue that the TRAI itself recommended that auctions not be conducted – what’s the point in having a regulator if the government is going to overpower it? Both men can complain – but it will get them nowhere.

Companies often go through such periods in their otherwise perfect lives. Take Infosys – after being the darling of the Indian and global investors for more than a decade – the company has today been dislodged from its perch. Today, TCS has widened its lead over Infosys and a lowly Cognisant is snapping at its heels. It’s the same with Nokia. The mighty handset manufacturer – which once had 70% of the marketshare in India – is today down to no more than 20-25%. The brand has got squeezed by the Iphones and Android phones at the top end and the cheap Chinese brands at the bottom. Just look at what happened to Star TV a couple of years back when Colors was born. 8 years of unquestioned leadership vanished into thin air in no time. But corporates know how to fight back. Corporates don’t suffer the several malaises that political parties suffer from. A Star TV re-invented itself and came back to #1 position. An Infosys is changing its team and strategy; and is bound to recover lost ground. A Nokia is struggling; it seems to be merely tinkering its old strategy; is not bold enough to embark on something totally new. In a world of shared operating systems and user developed apps, Nokia is shut to both of these. Can it re-invent itself? Can it start from scratch?

Will Manmohan Singh be a Nokia or will he be a Star TV? That’s the question that is relevant in today’s politics. It’s no longer whether he is down or up. That’s been amply answered. How is he going to re-invent himself and his government?

For starters, every person who is down and out must look for his strength inside. What are Manmohan Singh’s strengths? For the PM, his strengths are not great oratory; political power play; or political grandstanding. His strength is economics; an understanding of the problems of the poor; knowledge of how to get more FDI; a proven capability to turn the global economic worries into a grand opportunity for India. After all, if India got its act right, the global fears should lead to foreign monies flowing into India, not out of it. Manmohan Singh should make sure his government takes all the economic decisions that are pending. It’s time he overruled his team members who think more of politics than of economics. He has to believe that good economics is good politics. He must push hard for raising the industrial growth rates. He has to reign in the RBI’s mad and futile insistence to keep raising rates – even though it’s now proven that it won’t contain inflation. The inflation is in agriculture; raising rates doesn’t help there; in fact, it harms industrial growth. The PM has to personally make sure that in the next six months, India sees top-drawer economic reforms. The PM has another major strength – he is personally incorruptible. He must take the lead on the Lokpal. He has to surprise the nation with something that no one expects from him. He has to stop the politics; take the game in his own hands. He must make sure that Anna comes out singing paeans of praise about him; rather than having to go whining into another fast.

If the PM can show action on the economic front and on the corruption front, he can re-ignite his party. But he needs his boss’s support. Sonia Gandhi has to reign in her childish and increasingly insufferable ministers. MTV’s One Tight Slap needs be the motto for Sonia Gandhi now. No one in the Congress can afford to ignore Sonia Gandhi’s wishes. But she has to make those wishes clearly and amply known.

The PM and Sonia Gandhi must get comfort by knowing that the opposition is in no great position really. Just like Dhoni must know that there is no serious alternative to his captaincy. But that’s only in the short run. If the mess continues for long, a Virat Kohli, a Suresh Raina, a Virender Sehwag will lay claim to the top job. Why, even Dhoni got his job under similar crisis conditions. Manmohan Singh should understand this. The BJP is today in a state of disarray. It has its own corruption cases to fight and leadership crises to overcome. Like I have argued earlier, even if elections were held today, the BJP or the NDA is unlikely to win. That’s the opportunity that the Congress must grab with both hands. The BJP’s internal troubles must serve as the elixir of life. But that opportunity won’t last for long. The BJP has got re-energized. It’s smelling the blood from Congress’s festering wounds; sensing a victory.. It’s hungry for a second shot at the center. If the Congress won’t get its act together; the BJP will….

The real truth is that the UPA need to re-invent itself; or needs to prepare to go. When all your supporters – journalists like Shekhar Gupta, Vinod Mehta included – all start joking about your ineptitude, you should know you are in trouble. Minor tinkering won’t fix the problem. Major overhaul will. This is really a test for the leadership of the party. For Manmohan Singh and for Sonia Gandhi……Just like it is for Dhoni.

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