THE ART of communication, one hears, is going to be part of the key deliberations at the Congress retreat later this week. It ought to be. Nothing has crippled the party’s second innings more than its seemingly chronic inability to seize the narrative. Thanks to the man who leads us, this country of a billion tongues has a most ironic situation: a silent head.
The damage of this cannot be emphasised enough. If it were merely a liability for the party, one could leave it to its own algebraic calculations. But the efficacy of a prime minister is not just the concern of the party he stems from; it’s germane to the entire nation. Elections in India are always the result of complex reckonings beyond the expertise of any psephologist, so 2014 may yet be anybody’s game. But when PM Manmohan Singh looks back at his legacy, it might hurt him to know that despite everything he had going for him — erudition, decency, a big and hopeful mandate — he ended up wounding the country in deep and unanticipated ways. He has made the idea of being good seem a weakness, a quality incompatible with power; and he has bifurcated the idea of a strong leader from a compassionate and ethical one. Most dangerously, his silences over the past few years have spawned a situation where people, frustrated with the absence of a clear-voiced leader, are beginning to hunger for merely a muscular one, regardless of their other vices or deficiencies. Despite a big victory in 2009 — earned in no small measure through his own goodwill — Singh has brought the world’s largest democracy to a piquant position: it has started to feel like a country run by the Opposition. And talk on the street.
A couple of days ago, a news daily put out an interesting statistic: Singh took one year to respond to the CWG scam; a year to the 2G one; six months on the Lokpal; 82 days on the impasse over FDI in retail; eight days to Kokrajhar; nine to the Delhi gangrape; and nine for the beheading at the LoC. That is to overlook a whole host of other issues he has never spoken on at all: Telangana; a myriad land protests; the excesses of the Salwa Judum; the stone-pelting youth of Kashmir; the land Bill; food Bill; mining Bill; tribal unrest; and the complete stalling of Parliament by the Opposition (to mention only a few). Each time he has failed to speak, the narrative has run ahead of him and his party — confused, raucous, divisive, overstated, shrill, hydra-tongued — filling the country with an incremental sense of anxiety and contempt. Sadly, at every step, Singh has chased the story, rather than framing and articulating it on his own terms.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the current escalation of hostilities with Pakistan. This is a landscape Singh knows well and has staked his leadership on. Displaying the will and vision people elect leaders for, he steered India through an extremely fraught time after 26/11, yet forged ahead with keeping diplomatic ties open with Pakistan; asserting his commitment to dialogue not as a sign of weakness but of pragmatic national self-interest. This has had slow but fruitful yields, both domestically and on the global stage. Yet, over the past 10 days, he has let public sentiment, the media and the Opposition ransom the Indo-Pak narrative into a place completely not of his choosing. The jawan’s beheading was indeed barbaric and India’s relations with Pakistan is always a tightrope walk, but perhaps he could have devised a way to register strong condemnation without us stooping to pointless talk of war; exiling hockey players; and stopping senior citizens from a chance to meet loved ones across the border. Without, in short, jettisoning every other aspect of relations between the two countries. Pakistan is an imploding, haemorrhaging nation — torn by its own insurmountable contradictions. Postures of war from India can only strengthen — and pour lifeblood — into Pakistan’s most regressive and inimical strands. But one’s intention here is not to evaluate the pros and cons of India’s positions on Pakistan: it is merely to note with impatience, that yet again, Singh — the head of a vast and complex country — has allowed himself to sound like a choir boy in someone else’s song. When he said it could no longer be “business as usual” with Pakistan, it was hard not to feel that he had abandoned his own lines and snatched a cue sheet in fright from the BJP and the country’s generals.
Democracies vote for leaders not because we always agree with them, but because we have agreed that once we vote them in, we will abide with their decisions. It’s time our prime minister reminded himself of the redemptive power of that.