Indian PM stoops to conquer

Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh has stooped to conquer, and has made a big impression in the bargain, though his party’s political opponents are still crying foul. In the wake of a media uproar and parliament turmoil last week over his government’s virtual shielding of a cabinet colleague on charges of abetting anti-Sikh rioters in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination 21 years ago, Dr. Singh permitted Jagdish Tytler to resign from his council of ministers. It was clear however that Tytler was being given marching orders after consultations with the Congress leadership, meaning Sonia Gandhi. But just as important as this act of “atonement” on the part of the ruling party’s leadership was the prime minister’s speech in parliament wherein he refused to “stand on prestige”. Perhaps such a speech has not been heard in India’s parliament before.

Singh begged forgiveness of the whole nation—not just the Sikhs against whom the Congress leadership at local levels in the nation’s capital is alleged to have acted prejudicially when cold-blooded massacres of Sikhs occurred in November 1984—while pleading that all sections of society should take steps to ensure that such traumatising events did not occur in the future. In his speech the prime minister mixed a sense of spirituality with political philosophy underlying the nations’s unity and decried acts of communal hatred that detracted from it. The role of Tytler and certain other figures in the communal conflagration against Sikhs was once again highlighted by the Nanavati Commission of Inquiry, though legal processes have cleared the former minister who continues to profess his innocence. The Commission was set up by the erstwhile NDA government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee.

It is rare for a government to heed recommendations of judicial commissions set up by administrations run by rival parties. That Manmohan Singh has chosen to do so sets him apart from the normal run of politicians and enhances his moral stature. It has to be considered however that the UPA government is unlikely to have taken such conspicuous steps if not pushed by the Left which, though a government ally, threatened to vote with the opposition in the event of Tytler not being shown the door. It is indeed interesting that the Left went so far as to make a threat of this nature on a political issue, not an economic one. The latter may have been more in line with its normal strident ways. It is also noteworthy that the Left made an issue of the ‘Sikh issue’ although this theme is unlikely to affect its electoral prospects in its stronghold of Kerala and West Bengal where assembly elections are due in about six months’ time. Possibly the Left hopes to reclaim some of its lost hegemony. But in the end, it is unclear who gained more—Manmohan Singh or the Left parties. It should also be noted that in the public appreciation of events, the kudos go to the PM personally, rather than his party. This simply means that in the next general election, it will be difficult to replace Manmohan Singh with a so-called more ‘normal’ politician.

Sahay, a journalist, writes for THT from New Delhi