Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s six years in office has been marked by what the Congress sees as consistent attempts to appropriate its icons and stalwarts — from M.K. Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri to P.V. Narasimha Rao and Pranab Mukherjee. How much of this is because of the opposition party’s refusal to promote anyone outside the Nehru-Gandhi family is another story. At a time when the coronavirus crisis threatens to imperil the India growth story, Modi may want to appropriate one more Congress figure — Manmohan Singh.
The Prime Minister and his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold Jawaharlal Nehru responsible for everything that ails India today. But, for once, Modi could take a leaf out of Nehru’s book on national reconstruction.
Nehru’s first Cabinet had three political adversaries — R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the minister of finance; Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the minister of industries; and B.R. Ambedkar, the minister of law. The idea was to put aside political differences for the larger national goal. Does Modi have it in him to send out a similar nation-over-politics message?
The missing ally
PM Modi’s Mann ki Baat on Sunday had all the familiar elements — morale-lifting stories of inspiration and hope, listing of his government’s achievements, invocation of participatory governance by making people owners of their political leadership’s successes and failures, and categorisation of individual miseries (of migrant workers, in this case) as a sacrifice for the larger national cause.
If someone had tuned in to the programme expecting to get a sense of Modi’s assessment of the magnitude of the impending economic crisis and his plans to deal with it, all she got was the rather philosophical slogan of atmanirbharta or self-reliance, essentially the 2020 version of the 2014 Make in India.
It is BJP politicians, not so much the economists, who are excited about Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus ‘packaging’. But it is difficult to share their optimism easily, especially because these same NDA policymakers were dismissing anybody talking of economic downturn pre-Covid, condemning them as ‘prophets of doom’. That is why it would go a long way to reassure millions of laymen and economic ignoramus like this writer if PM Modi seeks out Manmohan Singh, who has a proven track record of steering India out of many economic cesspools — first in the early 1990s as Narasimha Rao’s finance minister and then during the 2007-08 global financial crisis as India’s Prime Minister.
No one in Modi’s trust cabinet
As it is, Modi’s finance ministers haven’t been known to inspire his confidence. Or so it seems from the nature of their involvement in policy-making, post facto or after the decision is taken. Not many were, therefore, surprised by the absence of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman from the PM’s pre-budget consultations with economists last January. We don’t know if the Prime Minister had discussed the economic repercussions of the nationwide lockdown with her before he announced it on March 24. But we do know about his announcement to set up an economic recovery task force under the finance minister; the government is yet to notify its contours.
Not that Sitharaman’s predecessor, late Arun Jaitley, knew it all. His involvement as the finance minister in the 2016 demonetisation decision, for instance, remains a mystery. A few weeks after PM Modi had addressed the nation to declare invalid 86 per cent of high-value currency notes in circulation, I happened to find Jaitley all alone in the Central Hall of Parliament. I thanked my luck. It was rare to find him alone, not surrounded by my fraternity. “Sir, completely off-the-record, when exactly did the PM discuss demonetisation with you?” I whispered. He responded with his familiar disarming smile: “Shobhana kaisi hai (How is Shobhana Bhartia — chairperson and editorial director of HT Media, the publication I was working with then)?” I was taken aback. I remember muttering something vague as he watched me, smiling. For a change, I was relieved to see fellow journalists rushing towards us. I had got my answer.
There have been many names floating at different points of time as Prime Minister Modi’s sounding board in matters of finance and economy but not one is known to enjoy his complete trust.
What if, and Modi’s benefits
Suppose for a moment Modi invites his predecessor to take up some advisory role to help his government steer India out of the looming economic crisis. What a message that would send! Can Manmohan Singh say no when the nation needs his knowledge and expertise? Unlikely. After all, like the many Congress icons mentioned at the beginning of this article, Manmohan Singh, too, has been reduced to a decorative piece on the walls in the Congress office and, at times, in press conferences.
How often do you hear Rahul Gandhi, the former-and-would-be Congress president, talk about Singh’s achievements? Gandhi would rather have economists Thomas Piketty or Abhijit Banerjee guide him in drafting the NYAY scheme. The former Prime Minister must be perplexed to see Gandhi video-interview economists Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan sitting abroad on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the economy.
As for PM Modi, he would be killing at least three birds in one stone if he were to involve Manmohan Singh in preparing India’s economic roadmap.
First, nobody comes close to Singh in terms of expertise and experience in such times. Second, it would blunt the Congress’ campaign about the Modi government’s economic mismanagement, once and for all. The principal opposition party would, at best, seek to claim credit for helping the government out but it wouldn’t worry the BJP much; nobody can beat Modi in this game.
Third, it would make Modi a statesman, someone who could put aside his political differences and seek even his rival’s help for the larger national cause. It wouldn’t undermine his image as a strong and decisive leader; it would rather impart that much-needed element of humility to his public persona.
Having said all this, what if Manmohan Singh refuses to work with the Modi government, even in an advisory capacity? Well, Modi can then always blame the Congress for only criticising and running away from taking any responsibility towards national reconstruction. Modi would come out looking like a statesman either way.
Views are personal.
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