Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is usually calm, rarely speaks about himself and is content to be seen as a team player. His critics, and there are many, believe he is “controlled” by Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
But speaking in Parliament on March 6, it was a different Singh in action. The reticence was gone and he wasn’t afraid to take on the opposition party in pretty strong political language.
Apparently stung by the language used at a Bharatiya Janata Party gathering, where Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi described the Congress as “dheemak”, the Prime Minister gave it back to the party-waiting-for-power.
After defending the growth record of the country under the United Progressive Alliance, Singh said:
A few days ago, [at] a conclave of the National Council of BJP assembled in Delhi, used the choicest abuses for the Congress establishment and Congress leadership including myself. It is not my intention to reply them in that language because I do believe that our work and our performance are the best judges of what we have achieved.
And then came the prediction, seen as unusual from the mild-mannered Prime Minister:
We have seen this arrogance not for the first time. The Shining India campaign in 2004 led to disastrous results for the BJP. In 2009, they fielded the iron man Advani ji against the lamb that Manmohan Singh is, and we all know as to what was the result. I am convinced that if the people of India were to look at our record in these nine or 10 years, they would repeat what they did in 2004 and 2009.
So, Manmohan Singh was being quite simple: that he “the lamb” took on the “iron man” of the BJP in 2009 and returned to office as Prime Minister. And, he predicted a hat-trick for the Congress-led coalition in 2014.
And, time and again, both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, the Prime Minister reeled off statistics to show that his government’s record in 2004-2013 was far superior to that of the BJP-led coalition from 1998-2004.
The record, he said, spoke for itself.
Whatever be the “successes” of the government, the fact remains that it’s been ridden with allegations of corruption from almost day one since it took office again in 2009.
The 2G scam, the loot of funds to stage the Commonwealth games in Delhi, party bigwigs scrambling to get themselves flats in the Adarsh society in Mumbai, the coal allotments scam, kickbacks in helicopter deals ... there’s a lot the Manmohan Singh government has to answer for.
The furore over women’s safety after the December 16 rape-and-murder in Delhi and the secret hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for staging the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, without informing his family, are blots on the government’s record.
Public spending on welfare projects (much of it is pilfered in any case) is not going to present a humane face of the State to the people – its actual actions that lead to the building of a caring government.
Manmohan Singh and his ministers have a lot do if their government is to aim for a caring image.
Many of the instruments the State works with are of a colonial heritage, but there is little imagination and momentum in the government to be able to construct alternatives.
However, the BJP’s record is no better. Karnataka, the only state in southern India where the party is in power, has seen rampant corruption, with the mining mafia ruling the roost. There’s been a split in the party, whose government stands discredited.
The BJP, which has attempted to become the sole spokesman for the Hindu religion, and aggressively demonised India’s Muslims, came to power in 1998 under a “moderate” leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who kept a disparate coalition government going.
Today, the party is signalling a return to the imagery of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya by hordes mobilised under the leadership of one of its most senior leaders, “the iron man” L.K. Advani.
If Manmohan Singh and the Congress are battling to retain the “moderate centre”, the BJP under its undeclared Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, can be expected to do battle for the formation of a hard-line, anti-minority, police state that would make India “strong”.