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PM symbolises iron fist in velvet glove

May 03, 2009 16:50 IST
It was late night on April 6, 2005, that I saw a side of Manmohan Singh that I had never seen before. To me the events of that evening define his personality.

As we prepared to leave next morning for Srinagar, where the prime minister would flag off the first Srinagar-Muzzafarabad passenger bus service, news broke of a terrorist attack on the tourist complex in Srinagar. The encounter between terrorists and security forces took its toll. The rest of the day and evening was spent trying to assess the situation and decide whether the prime minister and Congress party president Sonia Gandhi would fly next morning to Srinagar or not. It was possible that an even bigger attack had been planned for the next day.

In the evening the Union home minister and all senior security officials, including the national security advisor, chiefs of intelligence agencies and others gathered at 7, Race Course Road, the official home of the prime minister. The consensus view was that the bus service launch should be postponed. Even as the meeting progressed the prime minister received phone calls from senior cabinet colleagues and some chief ministers expressing their concern for his safety and that of Mrs Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi called the PM and told him that she would go by his advice and decision.

Advice against going ahead with the programme kept pouring in. Almost no one in authority could guarantee 100 pc safety of the PM. After landing at Srinagar airport he would have to travel to the venue of the public meeting either by road or helicopter. Terrorists could attack anywhere. The weather was playing truant. It could rain. Which meant the helicopter ride would be difficult. Going by road would require a security clampdown of an order that the PM did not favour.

"I cannot impose curfew in Srinagar and then go to launch a bus service!" an angry PM said when someone suggested that option. At the end of a long evening the official advice was, 'postpone the event'.

One by one all the ministers and officers left. The PM was tired and looked deeply worried. I sat with him alone for a few minutes in complete silence. The TV in the room was on with visuals of the day's destruction in Srinagar. Fire, gun shots, a building burnt, people crying. We stared at the TV without a word.

After what seemed like ages he spoke. "I will go," he said, and asked his personal secratary to connect him to Mrs Gandhi. "I don't want to postpone tomorrow's programme" he told her, "I will go." She agreed, and said she would go too. I rushed out to inform the media.

The phrase that comes to my mind when I reflect on the personality of Manmohan Singh is, 'an iron fist in a velvet glove.' But the other phrase that also captures his style is, 'he stoops to conquer!'

Any man who has spent the first decade of his life in a village that had no drinking water, no school, no electricity, no hospital and lived through the trauma of partition, and then went on to win coveted academic awards at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was introduced by the Secretary-General of Association of South East Asian Nations to a gathering of Asian leaders as the "world's most qualified head of government," is no ordinary mortal.

As his media advisor and spokesman I would often say that my job was like that of a BMW brand manager! The brand is so good, you hardly need to manage it. It is, therefore, not surprising that despite all the canards that have been spread about him, all the maligning and misrepresentation, he remains streets ahead of all his political rivals as the nation's choice for the prime minister. Ordinary Indians have come to value the quiet but reassuring presence of a philosopher-king at the helm of the ship of State.

It is not often, however, that Manmohan Singh allows the steel inside him to be revealed. His consensual style gives the impression that he is willing to be pushed around. It is because he consults almost everybody, from the consequential to the inconsequential, before taking a decision that some assume he has no agenda of his own.

Long before the public stand he took on the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which made everyone sit up and notice, I have seen him get his way on so many issues, big and small, without making this obvious to all those who came to believe the decision was a consensual one, rather than the will of the prime minister.

This made my job as a media advisor very difficult on many occasions because he would not want me to share with the media how a particular decision of the government was in fact his and not that of someone else who may be claiming, or just being given, the credit for it.

Even on the nuclear agreement he was willing to let the Left Front take credit for securing a final agreement that was in the nation's interests! This was a compromise formula communicated to the prime minister by a senior Left leader. When the final 123 agreement between India and the United States was made a public document, one view within the Left Front was that they should take credit by claiming that they had helped secure a better outcome than what the prime minister was capable of securing from the Americans.

'We will say that it is our stand in Parliament that forced the government to negotiate a better agreement. This way we can support the agreement and at the same time be seen distancing ourselves from the Congress and the prime minister.' If this view had prevailed in the higher councils of the Left Front, the United Progressive Allaince government would have served its full term with no problem. At least one senior Left leader, who had said to Manmohan Singh when he took charge as prime minister, "I assure you of our support for a full five year term", wanted to go along with this compromise formula so that he could keep his word to the prime minister.

Clearly, Singh was willing to stoop to conquer. But when this compromise formula was rejected by the hardliners in the Left, Singh had no option but to show the iron fist in his velvet glove. Never under-estimate the determination of a self-made man!

More often than not Singh would get his way through patient consultation. There is no major decision I am aware of on which he had not consulted his senior colleagues and senior UPA leaders. There is of course the institution of the weekly Friday meeting of the Congress party 'core group'. The group included the PM, the Congress president and a handful of senior party leaders. It would meet every Friday at 6 pm at 7, RCR.

But apart from this formal consultation, he would be on the phone with UPA leaders like M Karunanidhi, Sharad Pawar and Lalu Prasad and keep them informed on every major decision, and get their concurrence before acting. His is a classic cabinet style of functioning. On major policy issues he would keep even the Left in the loop.

The downside of such a consultative process is, of course, that decision-making takes time and tough decisions don't always get taken. But that is the price we pay for having diverse coalitions. There is a paradox in the liberal angst about politics and policy in India. On the one hand we celebrate coalitions as a mirror of our diversity; on the other hand we want 'tough' leaders who will impose their will.

Manmohan Singh's style of functioning reflects the genius of consensual policy making in the era of coalitions, when leaders stoop to conquer and soften their blows with velvet gloves!

The author is a noted journalist and formerly media adviser to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh

Dr Sanjaya Baru