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Why the prime minister is so silent is not so much a question of whether it is better to have a leader who talks too little or one that talks too much. Is his silence doing him that much good?

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Let me ask you a trick question. How would you describe the UPA-II government, one that talks too little, or one that talks too much?

Stumped? Don’t blame yourself. It is indeed a bit of both. Except that the parts of it that should be talking are so exasperatingly quiet, and the parts that should keep their mouths shut cannot stop blabbering. The result is a government that looks one of the most chaotic and internally divided in our history, as also one that is remarkable in not communicating with the people who voted it in power.

There is no concerted effort to either explain its policies to the people, or to build public opinion for any planned policy changes, even positive innovations. All that people hear, therefore, is internal criticism, dissension and back-stabbing. Sure enough, we have had messy governments in the past Morarji Desai’s Janata, V.P. Singh’s coalition and, to a lesser extent, even Deve Gowda’s United Front. But you expected very little else from those completely unstable and transitory arrangements. But this UPA-II, with a new, improved mandate?

First, the parts of UPA-II that are not talking. Certainly, the prime minister isn’t. This session of Parliament is halfway through, and you haven’t seen him make one intervention, though you see him in the House often enough. In Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram, he has able lieutenants to speak on his behalf. But is that a reason why he should not? He spent most of his first term talking very little, but you would not remember him spending more than a year without having said anything to explain, to reassure, to build opinion around his many new ideas. The only time he spoke in months was at the all-party meeting on Kashmir.

Why the prime minister is so silent is not so much a question of whether it is better to have a leader who talks too little or one that talks too much. A good example of the latter category is Obama, and his garrulousness, howsoever charming, has done him no good lately. But, in contrast, is the prime minister’s silence doing him that much good?

India’s prime minister is not some kind of technocratic head of administration. Whatever the nature and background of the person occupying the job, it is essentially a deeply political one, and is never insulated from public opinion and vice versa. Just as no political arrangement, whatever its peculiarities, should ever undermine or weaken the position of its prime minister (an established trait of third front-type coalitions), no prime minister can afford to go into such a long phase of silence, whether out of preoccupation or sullenness or sheer exasperation at the complications of his politics.

Also read: No good news please, we are the Congress

It is not as if Dr Singh was giving out weekly televised speeches in UPA-I, but there were three differences then. One, expectations from that government, and the prime minister, were much lower. Second, even if the prime minister did not, Sonia Gandhi was still displaying a more active connect with the people. And third and probably the most significant dissensions within the Congress were not so pronounced. This Parliament session has underlined the downside of this approach, particularly as the prime minister’s and Sonia Gandhi’s somewhat detached silence is only matched by the noise made by others.

There is widespread confusion at the popular level about all the issues on which the government has been under pressure: prices, the Commonwealth Games, Bhopal, Kashmir. An impression has grown or has been allowed to grow that this is a deeply divided government with no centre of gravity. Since New Delhi is also the capital of political conspiracy theorists, nobody ever believes any public expression of dissent particularly in the Congress is merely somebody’s recently awakened conscience talking.

So when we see Digvijay Singh taking on his own government in Azamgarh over Batla House, or calling its home minister and his own friend intellectually arrogant and then taking a different tack on the Maoists, it fits with the usual theories on the usual suspects. But when he raises doubts about who gave Warren Anderson his boarding pass (remember, it was he who told NDTV from the US that it couldn’t be the state government’s fault, that instructions had come from Delhi, and that there may have been American pressure), you wonder what is going on. Is there any theory to explain Congress people raising questions about a late Gandhi (other than Sanjay, of course)?

That exposed a vulnerable new flank for the opposition. And even before the Congress could cover it, another of its veterans, and another former chief minister (Arjun Singh), reignited that fire again with his too-clever-by-half statement passing the buck on to the Centre but blaming Narasimha Rao, instead. Then, there is Mani Shankar Aiyar wishing the Commonwealth Games failure. With comrades like these, who needs the opposition?

This remarkable conspiracy of silence and noise has created problems for many of the key issues today. Does the government have a policy on Maoists, or does Chidambaram have one, with others holding different views (and we are not even counting Mamata here)? Does this government have a bad conscience on Bhopal, and if so, why? Does it have a coherent plan on Kashmir besides systematic waffling, and if it does, who is implementing or leading it? Has it dumped the Commonwealth Games and distanced itself from Kalmadi, or does it have a plan to save them and if so, who will take that responsibility? Who speaks to whom to bring back some coherence when the foreign minister gives the home secretary a ticking off in serial interviews on TV? What conclusion do you draw when so many cabinet members indulge in the game of honey, I shrank Montek (read Manmohan)?

We know the troubles the BJP is facing. We also know that the Left is headed for a new abyss in West Bengal and Kerala. The Yadavs of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are self-destructing. But the troubles that UPA-II is now facing are also serious, and mostly self-inflicted or a result of friendly fire. It’s been 15 years since you’ve seen such a chaotic-noisy yet silent Congress leadership. Fifteen years back was when the party lost power under Narasimha Rao, its favourite demon. You have to concede that it is much less insecure now, but it is certainly much more complacent.

Also read: Generation Ex


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