Debating India

THE NEW PM

Man, The Man

Sheela REDDY

Monday 28 June 2004, by REDDY*Sheela

Manmohan Singh brings his self-effacing style to the prime minister’s office too. Politics may not be his game but, make no mistake, governance surely is.

When Jawaharlal Nehru was sworn in as India’s first prime minister, embarrassed officials reported to him that his office wouldn’t be ready for the next few days.

The room meant for him was still occupied by the secretary-general, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai. Nehru promptly installed himself in the only other available one in South Block, a small corner room, insisting that Bajpai not be moved out for his sake. This impatience, verging almost on embarrassment, with prime ministerial rank is something Nehru shares with his 13th successor, Manmohan Singh.

Manmohan, in a gesture reminiscent of Nehru, has repeatedly turned down the official photographer whose job it is to shoot the portrait of the new prime minister to replace that of Atal Behari Vajpayee on sarkari walls. A visibly embarrassed Manmohan wriggled out of the appointment, saying that the only two portraits that need to hang on official walls are those of Mahatma Gandhi and President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

He was in even more acute discomfiture over the fleet of six new BMWs he has been saddled with by the previous government, trying to divide them between Sonia Gandhi, vip guests and even two to the man who ordered them in the first place: Vajpayee. It is only when his securitymen insisted the bullet-proof BMW was a far safer car for a prime minister than the ordinary Ambassador that Manmohan reluctantly submitted to using them.

Others too have noticed Manmohan’s reluctance to shed his shy, unassuming persona and don the official aura. Members of Parliament who haunt Central Hall in the hope of catching the prime ministerial eye when he walks from his chamber into the House have discovered that Manmohan is a PM with a difference: he walks right through them, his eyes resolutely fixed straight ahead. And on Monday night, when two of his cabinet colleagues arrived 15 minutes late for an appointment at his residence, they were aghast to find the prime minister waiting for them on his porch. "Not a word of reproach from him for being late," the minister recalls. "He just led us in and saw us off to the door when we were leaving. He welcomes you and puts you at ease with infinite patience."

Something even his aides at the PMO confirm. "At one meeting," recounts an aide, "he suddenly stood up to stretch his legs. All six of us sitting in the room immediately rose to our feet. He was so embarrassed, asking us to please sit down."

But despite the softness, agree both his ministers and officials, Manmohan is no pushover. "Any politician who mistakes his soft-spokenness for weakness would be making a big mistake," says a minister who had a close-up view of Manmohan’s style at the daily meetings of the parliamentary affairs committee during the last session. "He is mostly silent, but when he has something to say, his words have a powerful impact," he says, adding wryly: "Unlike me. Even though I speak so much, I’m not taken seriously."

Fortunately, as another minister who works closely with him pointed out, Manmohan’s low profile and exquisitely soft-spoken courtesy is ideal for his "unique position" as a prime minister nominated by the Congress party’s real leader, Sonia Gandhi. "His position is very clear: he has to run a clean and efficient administration, leaving the political role to Sonia Gandhi. His clearly-defined job is to run a government that will deliver votes for the Congress in the next elections."

Manmohan is, according to the minister, in a better position than the last prime minister who, in juggling roles as party leader and head of government, "could neither govern nor run the party".

It’s a task that Manmohan is getting down to with little visibility and characteristic diligence.

One of the first things he did was to quickly nip the nepotism that flourishes unchecked in the PMO: he issued a note to all his officials, directing them that "in case there is any attempt on the part of any individual seeking information, favour, relief or intervention on any matter from this office or the government in the name of the PM or identifying (himself) as relative or friend of the PM, action on such requests will not be taken by any official without first ascertaining from the PM through the normal channel."

The memo ends with a terse: "Officers of the PMO are requested to take note of this directive for compliance." The message was clear: no hanky-panky will be tolerated in this PMO.

Another note followed, this time to his ministers: no foreign jaunts just now, there is work to be done. The note, says one of his aides, was Manmohan’s response to the pile of letters he received from his newly-sworn-in ministers asking for permission to travel abroad. Again the message was crystal-clear: that for all his soft-spokenness, their unassuming new prime minister means business. More importantly, it’s already becoming clear to Congressmen that Manmohan has the unqualified backing of their leader, Sonia Gandhi. "Both their tasks are clearly defined," explains a minister who serves as a bridge between the party and the government, "while Sonia Gandhi has to strengthen the party and keep partymen on a tight leash, Manmohan Singh has to deliver good governance."

"It’s early days as yet," admits one minister, "but even the senior ministers understand that they are on trial. They can’t pull their seniority rank forever, they know they are being watched. Give them a few months and it will be clear who is performing and who isn’t. Doodh ka doodh aur paani ka paani ho jayega. And they also know that Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are one on this: they are not likely to duck hard decisions."

Which is perhaps why Manmohan was able to cure what one of his aides described as "his biggest headache so far" by a gentle telephone call. The headache: several of his ministers speaking out of turn. All Manmohan did, according to the aide, is to pick up the phone and appeal for more discretion from the guilty minister. "It mostly works," says the aide.

"He has to lead by example," explains the minister, "and he’s doing just that." That is why, point out his aides, Manmohan is reluctant to either be seen or heard (although he plans to address the nation in his first TV appearance soon). Nor does he want to travel abroad unless it’s absolutely necessary. Like the UN general assembly session in September, for instance.

Stripped of all party responsibilities, Manmohan has been given, according to the minister, "a free hand in administration". Sonia Gandhi may decide political appointments, including governors, "but there will be no backseat driving-she won’t interfere in the running of the government whose job it will be to deliver the jobs, water, power, houses and so on that will fetch us votes in the next elections". "It’s a synergetic model," the minister goes on to explain. "We are trying out a new model of government where the leader is not tall in the traditional sense, not a political heavyweight. It’s an attempt to get votes for policies rather than faces. Who knows, if this works, it may be a model for the future."

Manmohan has certainly not fought shy of taking over the reins of administration. From the appointment of his own aides in the PMO, to choosing a new cabinet secretary and foreign secretary, Manmohan’s stamp is apparent.

Officials around him are beginning to understand his method: "First he asks for a list of names from many sources, then he consults a lot of people, but the decision, when it comes, is nearly always a surprise to everyone, including those he consulted and the one who lands the job," one of them said.His selection of a new cabinet secretary was even more unusual: Manmohan personally interviewed the top 10 contenders for the job before deciding on Bal Krishna Chaturvedi, a 1966 batch officer from the UP cadre. Sources say the PM called for the bio-datas of all the contenders and interviewed each one for some 10-15 minutes. Chaturvedi, on the verge of retirement, bagged the prized post for an equally unusual quality: he had stayed above politics even as colleagues were drifting a little too close to the bjp government. Manmohan is likely to repeat this selection procedure to fill other top slots in the government. It is a selection process, some say, that hasn’t been employed since Nehru’s time. Like Nehru too, Manmohan has had prime ministership thrust too suddenly upon him, catching him unprepared, without that list of right names for the right jobs that most prime ministers bring into office with them.

An astute minister described Manmohan as "a man of few words-he keeps his own counsel and when he conveys his decision it is succinctly done." Just how much he keeps his own counsel was apparent in his choice for vice-chairman of the Planning Commission. It’s an enviable job that allows the incumbent to be part of the cabinet, not to speak of the power to dispense penalty and bonus to state governments. Not unnaturally, a number of politicians including two ex-CMs had a hopeful eye cast on the job. Manmohan went through the motions of consultations and shortlisting candidates. But his choice took nearly everyone by surprise: his former finance secretary and now imf director Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The move won Manmohan the respect of most politicians, one of whom described it as an "inspired move", getting his own trusted man into a cabinet where he is the only political non-entity. As one of his ministers observed: "He’s a seasoned politician now. Quite unlike 1991, when he was a mere technocrat wandering in the corridors of power. He has dealt with conspiracies to undo him and more importantly, has survived in the opposition for eight years."

It’s a compliment, say those who are closest to him, that Manmohan doesn’t deserve. "His only motive is to get the right man in the right job," says one of his aides. "He is convinced that despite what newspaper editorials are saying, it can’t be business as usual. People have voted for a change." And Montek in that key post, many believe, has the ideas to deliver that mandate.

Manmohan may be no politician, but his adamant refusal to give himself prime ministerial airs or build up his own image may turn out to be the most politic thing he’s ever done.

P.S.

Manmohan’s New Style Of Government

What’s In

- Blank sarkari walls

- Ambassador cars

- Professionalism; punctuality; seeing people off to the door

- Keeping a low profile, choosing words with care

- Going through right channels

- Overtime at office

- Interviews even for top jobs

- Consensus

What’s Out

- PM’s portrait

- BMWs

- Sychophancy; trying to catch the prime ministerial eye in Central Hall

- Shooting your mouth off; appearing too often on TV

- Pulling strings

- Going on foreign jaunts

- Trying to find godfathers

- Backseat driving

in Outlook India, Monday, June 28, 2004.

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