Is Manmohan Singh still “India’s weakest PM”?

Regardless of what happens on Tuesday—or maybe even Monday—can anybody ever accuse Manmohan Singh of being “India’s weakest PM since independence” again, as L.K. Advani so effortlessly did eight months ago?

The prime minister earned the epithet from the prime minister-in-waiting last October after he told a Hindustan Times conclave that his was not a “one-issue government” and that non-implementation of the nuclear deal was not the “end of life”.

Advani charged Singh of an “extraordinary combination of ineptitude, arrogance, immaturity and lack of conviction” for heeding to Left pressure and making what, at that time, seemed like a U-turn on the serpentine nuclear road. 

Advani’s certification was, of course, only incidental.

Since Singh doesn’t thump his chest like you-know-who, flare up his nostrils like you-know-who or wag his finger like you-know-who, BJP spokesmen have merrily used the “weakest PM” tag to needle and deride the soft-spoken sardar.

(It took the controversy raised by Advani’s claims in his memoirs over the IC-814 hijack to Kandahar for a Congress spokesman to briefly return the favour this March calling him “the weakest home minister India has ever had”.)

But how odd the label now seems in the context of all that’s happening.

The “weakest PM” has taken the Left bull by the horns leading to their withdrawal of support. The “weakest PM” has continued on the lonely nuclear road. The “weakest PM” has thirsted and sought a floor test of his government.

In truth, the seeming volte face on the nuclear deal was only a pretext to slap the “weakest PM” tag on Manmohan. Ever since he took over as prime minister, Advani and gang have liked to believe that the technocrat-politician did not have his own mind.

That he was just His Master’s Voice, trying to listen to her inner voice.

If he didn’t give interviews or thundering speeches, it was said that it was because he didn’t want to overshadow the presiding deity of 10, Janpath. If he didn’t take on his challengers and interlopers, it was because he didn’t want to upset the puppeteers.

If he didn’t slap his thighs at each terror attack, if he didn’t twirl his moustache at the opposition in Parliament, if he didn’t hang Afzal Guru or glare at Pervez Musharraf, it was all seen to be a sign of “weakness”.

And on and on, the insinuations went.

How odd, therefore, that the “weakest PM” now has Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi publicly sticking their neck out and backing him. How odd that the “weakest PM” should have sent Prakash Karat scurrying into the open arms of Mayawati. How odd that the “weakest PM” should boldly meeting corporate chiefs in his office.

How odd, even, that the “weakest PM” should have revealed how shaky Advani’s own position is on the N-deal.

God knows how this nuclear kerfuffle will all end, and where it will leave the government, the country, the Congress, the Left.

We can ask if this was the only issue on which the prime minister could have rediscovered his strength. We can ask if this was the only time he could have rediscovered his strength.

Maybe, as Saubhik Chakrabarti wrote in The Indian Express, Manmohan’s “opportunity cost for forcing a change” is lower. But, by god, can anybody accuse the prime minister of not having the courage of his conviction on the biggest issue of our times?

Whether or not he wins the trust vote on Tuesday, whether or not the nuclear deal goes through, somebody somewhere will still be inserting “India’s weakest PM since independence” into his wikipedia entry. 

But that’s perception, what about the reality—if not on Tuesday, two decades from now; if not at home, across the world?

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