Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Manmohan Singh – the new troubleshooter????

How Manmohan Singh has emerged after Pranab’s departure! When he stepped into the Finance Minister’s boots, no one was surprised. If there was someone most suitable for that role, it was him. The stock markets rose in anticipation, and again that was understandable. What has really surprised many is the way the PM has stepped in to play the other role that Pranab used to play – the role of the troubleshooter!

Handling Mamata Banerjee and getting him to vote for Pranab for the Presidential polls was something that the PM has been credited with by Mamata herself. No one expected Mamata to do a u-turn of the type she did eventually. Agreed she was boxed in by her own immature decision, but it would have been so easy for Mamata to keep sulking. In fact, till the very end, the expectation was that she would abstain at best. But for her to actually back Pranab – and now to agree to attend the swearing-in ceremony – is something no one expected.

And now again, the PM is in the middle of handling the NCP controversy. Again, it is Sharad Pawar’s excellent relations with the PM that are coming to the rescue. Pawar has been quoted as saying that he was very happy with the PM’s initiatives at addressing the complaints of the NCP and if the problem is resolved amicably, it will be the PM who should take much of the credit.

The PM is of course reticent at the best of times. It is also well known that he is extremely intelligent and India’s foremost economist. He is also known to be exceedingly honest. All except the vicious Team Anna believe so. These personal strengths and integrity give the PM the moral clout over his team. He is a natural leader. Not because he is charismatic (he is not), nor because he is a good orator (which he obviously is not!) and definitely not because he is a clever politician (he most certainly is not). But it’s precisely for all these things that he is not, that he commands the respect he does. Sometimes, when an intellectual speaks, the world stops to listen. That’s what has been happening of late.

The key question now is if the PM can use this moral strength to steer the economy out of the troubled spot it finds itself in. Can he win over Mamata and Mulayam and make them back the FDI provisions? Can he get the BJP to focus on what the country needs even while it continues to politically oppose the Congress? Can he get the bureaucracy to start taking decisions again, thus lifting the complete stoppage in work that has gripped the government? That remains to be seen.

My sense is that the PM is waiting to break free. In spite of all that is written about his relationship with Sonia, I don’t think the PM suffers from any lack of support from her. To be fair to the PM, he is managing a very fragile coalition. The biggest bugbear of course is the even-more-left-than-the-Left Mamata, with whom it’s difficult to have any intelligent discussion. With Mamata the internal rebel of the UPA, much of the decision making has come to a halt. Then there is the other problem that the PM faces – the lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha. What use is it to pass the Lokpal or any bill in the Lok Sabha if it cannot be cleared through the Rajya Sabha?

I wrote a few days back that the PM will do an Indo-US nuclear deal again next year….this time on FDI in multi-brand retail. No matter how much the Congress tries at this point in time, it is going to be impossible to push major reforms. But a year later, and closer to the elections in 2014, the PM will make the big bold push to clear a policy that is clearly in the national interest, but which has got bogged down in petty politics. In the end analysis, the impact of the retail FDI is large. It can be pitched to be a policy that works for 800 million farmers. The BJP that opposes it can be shown to be anti-farmer as it tries to protect the interests of the usurious traders who would lose if FDI were permitted. It would be a good political fight. The PM realizes it. I think he will strike at the right time.

The PM has of course made an immediate impact on the business and financial sector. Effectively, he has unwound the two decisions of Pranab Mukherjee that caused much anguish – GAAR and retrospective taxation targeting Vodafone. He’s also indicated that he would like to get a business-friendly Finance Minister and one who understands politics well – raising hopes that it could be Chidambaram who takes over. The markets have inherent faith in the PM’s economic capabilities. Not surprising that first Ratan Tata and now Azim Premji have come out in his support. If he just sticks his neck out a bit, he can do a lot. If the PM can achieve the seemingly impossible role of a political trouble-shooter, surely he can play the role of a reformist Finance Minister all over again.….

The real truth is that the PM’s soft and genial personality helps in keeping allies together. So did Vajpayee’s when he was the PM. In a coalition government, it helps to be a little mild; a little soft. So what if the hounds in the opposition and media misunderstand…..

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