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Is Manmohan Singh an enigma?

Soutik Biswas | 10:50 UK time, Monday, 31 May 2010

Manmohan Singh at the press conferenceIs Manmohan Singh a riddle? A large section of India's media appears to think so. Mr Singh, who once described himself as an 'accidental politician' has been the country's prime minister for the past six years. Yet, the media seems to be still struggling to form a rounded opinion on the dour and unsmiling technocrat-turned politician. They all agree he is possibly the country's cleanest politician, and a reasonably capable administrator. Beyond that, they seem to find him a bit of an enigma.

So when Mr Singh made a rare appearance at a press conference last week, the papers and networks whinged loudly. One newspaper complained that the 90-minute, 55-question press conference was "neither heady or headline worthy." Mr Singh, the paper despaired, "is also not good at repartee. His straight answers don't make for exciting sound bites". Networks regretted that Mr Singh was incapable of serving up red hot headlines. "Why doesn't he at least be humorous, crack a few jokes?" an exasperated newsreader wondered.

The media still loves to describe Mr Singh as an "outsider" of sorts - this after he has spent decades with the Congress party - who treads warily and, almost always, acquiesces entirely to the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. In the Delhi diarchy, journalists say, Ms Gandhi wields real power.

Yet, at the press conference, Mr Singh deftly negotiated awkward posers about squabbling cabinet colleagues and a controversial minister who is fighting corruption charges. He unequivocally squashed rumours of a mid-term retirement to pave the way for heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, and of reported differences with Ms Gandhi. At the same time, he said he would welcome Rahul Gandhi if he accepted a cabinet berth.

Indians have traditionally loved performing politicians - high on rhetoric and oozing earthy charisma - and Mr Singh is anything but. Still, he continues to enjoy high approval ratings despite a mixed performance. Does it mean that Indians have begun tiring of rhetoric-spewing, populist leaders and actually begun preferring a quiet, understated leader who possibly demonstrates a serious intent to perform? Is it a changing India which the networks haven't been able to come to terms with? Why do they appear to be looking for a prime minister who is a combination of a stand up comedian and a peddler of rhetoric and also adept at making major policy announcements at press conferences?

Mr Singh, most analysts agree, isn't a particularly inspiring leader. There was enough evidence of this at the press conference. His anodyne reactions to questions about, say, the rising threat from Maoists ('it is not correct to say we have underestimated the problem'), rising inflation ('containing inflation is the topmost priority') or allowing prosecution of Indian soldiers accused of killing villagers in Kashmir ('I will look into it') did not impress many. At the same time, Mr Singh was fairly eloquent when it came to issues close to his heart - his efforts to revive the India-Pakistan peace process, for example.Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh

All this leads his critics to say he lacks conviction, and remains a bureaucrat at heart. His low key, understated mien doesn't find favour with many who believe that Mr Singh could open up a little more, and share his vision for India with more clarity. As analyst Siddharth Varadarajan says, "Political parties cannot serve as vehicles for enlightened decision making, for raising the level of society's consciousness, if their leaders are going to shy away from taking a stand."

But isn't that a problem with India's Grand Old Party, the Congress itself? A year into its second term with a firmer majority, the party, most believe, is unable to chart out a vision for India. The government is a reflection of the party. So it has shied away from big ticket economic reforms - pension, insurance, labour laws, banking and retail - and concentrated on ploughing billions of dollars into a jobs-for-work programme in the countryside. It has pushed quotas for women in the parliament and state assemblies and is believed to be ready with some much-needed judicial reforms. But there is little "vision and energy", as a perceptive analyst wrote.

The analyst has found that Mr Singh's government made 25 promises to the people to be met in the first 100 days of the government. (One of them was making 20km of roads a day, and nothing even close to that is happening.) Over a year later, he found, only four had been met. All over the world governments make promises which they don't keep. But expectations have never been higher in India. And Mr Singh, with his bipartisan, moderating influence on governance and politics, will not be happy to be found wanting.


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