A curious feature of the scams
affecting the government is that they haven't undermined Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh's position as much as may have been
Instead, there have been words of praise for him from political
adversaries like Nitish Kumar and Subramanian Swamy and a neutral
admirer like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. The Congress, too, has
stood by him although it is no secret that Arjun Singh's virtual
retirement does not mean that Manmohan Singh no longer has any
critics in his own party.
A major reason why the prime minister has managed to survive is
because of the TINA (there is no alternative) factor in the
Congress where he is concerned. Neither Finance Minister Pranab
Mukherjee nor Home Minister P. Chidambaram has the image or
stature to step into his shoes although their competence as
administrators cannot be doubted.
Even if there have been calls from within the party for Rahul
Gandhi to take charge, the heir-apparent himself seems unwilling
to shoulder such an onerous responsibility at this stage. Besides,
it will obviously be unfair to saddle him with the task of
steering the government out of its present difficulties, whose
complexity and impact on the composition of the ruling alliance
can unnerve even a seasoned politician.
Sonia Gandhi herself might have taken charge. But, having
renounced the prime minister's office in 2004 and handpicked
Manmohan Singh, it would look odd if she decided to replace him
even if the Congress and its allies supported the transition.
Moreover, she must be aware that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
will lose no time to rake up the issue of her foreign origin
again, thereby adding another controversy to the present ones
faced by the government.
Apart from the TINA factor, there is another reason why Manmohan
Singh still remains the Congress's best bet in spite of being
battered and bruised by the allegations of having turned a blind
eye to the various scams. It is his personal integrity to which
even his opponents have testified. It is also an attribute which
is not shared by anyone else in the party, except Defence Minister
But the latter is too low key a person and lacks the charisma and
personality to be a prime minister. His power base, too, is far
away in Kerala. Besides, the BJP is bound to raise the issue of
his Christianity to claim that Sonia Gandhi is extending the grip
of her "Rome raj", a phrase used by Narendra Modi and others, over
the entire country. It is worth recalling that Modi had seen a
similar religion-based link between the former chief election
commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, and the Congress chief at the
time of the 2002 Gujarat elections.
For all practical purposes, therefore, the "accidental" prime
minister, which is how Manmohan Singh described himself after
taking charge in 2004, has virtually become irreplaceable - at
least for the time being. However, some of the implications of the
turn of events, which the Congress and its president could not
have anticipated in 2004, may not be welcomed by everyone in the
For one, it can no longer be said with certainty that Rahul will
automatically replace Manmohan Singh in 2014, as was earlier
expected, since a great deal may happen in the next three years,
especially if the prime minister pushes his reforms agenda with
greater vigour. Besides, considering that there is no question of
Rahul taking charge at present, it may be asked - certainly by the
party's opponents - whether someone who showed no interest in the
post at a time of crisis deserved it after the situation had
For another, Manmohan Singh may recover some of his lost political
standing if the cases against the guilty in the various scandals
lead to exemplary punishment. Considering that he has promised
that political influence will not save anyone, the Central Bureau
of Investigation (CBI) can at last be expected to act like a truly
autonomous and professional outfit. Besides, the Supreme Court's
supervision will compel it to ignore political interference.
For a third, after all the criticism that the prime minister has
faced for caving in to coalitional pressure, the only way he can
refurbish his reputation is to pursue the one issue - after the
nuclear deal - which is close to his heart, viz. economic reforms.
This pro-market policy is bound to face opposition from the
socialists within the Congress, but Manmohan Singh knows that if
he is again seen to be temporizing, BJP leader L.K. Advani's jibes
against him about being weak will gain credence.
There are signs already that he wants to follow the so-called
neo-liberal line from the way the Prime Minister's Office has been
diluting some of the left-of-centre initiatives of the Sonia
Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, such as the food security
The prime minister's position will also stabilise if the Congress
makes the expected gains in the forthcoming assembly elections.
While the party's success is reasonably assured in West Bengal
along with its partner, the Trinamool Congress, and in Kerala and
Assam, it is uncertain in Tamil Nadu, where its ally, the DMK is
mired in the scandal involving its party member, Andimuthu Raja,
the former telecom minister at the centre. But three out of four
is not a bad score.
Notwithstanding the dark clouds hovering over the prime minister
and the Congress at present, the future may be less gloomy.
is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)