The Indian PM's high-wire politics
IT is perfectly understandable. Denied any flexibility in manoeuvring members of his cabinet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is doing the best he can by reinventing his personal cabinet, a collection of personally chosen eminent personae given assignments from the PM's priority list.
Dr. Singh can do nothing to cabinet colleagues because the current law of coalition politics says that once you are seated in a particular chair, only an election defeat can drag you out of it. Competence, performance or even interest in your job has nothing to do with your continuance. DMK supremo's son Alagiri has zero interest in his cabinet job, and does not care who knows this. His real ambition is to succeed his father as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, a legacy currently assigned to his brother Stalin.
A cabinet member is meant to be part of a team, and implement a collective decision, even if he is personally opposed to it. His politicisation of an important pre-budget decision, to lift a key fertiliser subsidy, would have been sufficient for dismissal in any normal cabinet system of governance. The prime minister could do nothing about it since the DMK functions as an autonomous ally.
Gradually, through a creep-and-collect process, the prime minister has used his rights of appointment to his personal office to create a parallel mini-administration that can address those aspects of the national agenda that he is most interested in. This is not quite the kitchen cabinet of the Indira Gandhi days, when a core group of personal favourites functioned as a super cabinet, arguing the merits and demerits of a particular policy before it was presented to an obedient full cabinet.
The prime minister's men do not intervene, or interfere, in ministries outside their domain, as the kitchen cabinet would. But, if the prime minister has made any project his own, then the relevant ministry has to understand that there is a higher authority, and it is called the PMO.
The two most high-profile members of Dr. Singh's office in his first five years, National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, have both lost their positions because of the prime minister's increasingly evident desire for some solution to the Kashmir problem. Shyam Saran was an indirect casualty, but a casualty nevertheless.
No one resigns from the PMO unless it has been made apparent that the terms of relationship have changed. The media has been fed the perception that Saran was upset because he was denied the status of a minister of state. Ministers have become so devalued in the last decade that this is the least of a prime minister's problems.
He can get any status for whomever he likes. The substantive disagreement lay in the fact that Shyam Saran was not made NSA because the prime minister decided that Shivshankar Menon was, intellectually and temperamentally, closer to his line of thinking on Pakistan.
Dr. Singh knows he is taking huge risks. He has deliberately underplayed hard evidence from Indian intelligence that Pak-based, anti-Indian terrorist organisations continue to get active support from the Pak military, and that they are not non-state actors. Pakistan's army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has reiterated, in his latest doctrine, that India remains the pre-eminent threat to Pakistan, implicitly justifying the military's support for the second arm of his country's response to India, the terrorist network. Elements of Pakistan's political class have not helped Delhi by immature grandstanding, describing India's return to the talking table as a victory for Islamabad. This obviously grates on Indians.
The biggest risk is here: Dr. Singh has moved far ahead of Indian public opinion in his peace gambit. This is in direct contrast to the Indo-US nuclear deal, when middle-class opinion was cheering on the deal at each stage of negotiations. The middle class that wanted a closer relationship with America is not equally eager to buy the American prescription for peace on the subcontinent, of which these talks are the opening move.
It is not certain that Pakistan will buy it either, because the tail at the end of the dog is that Pakistan might have to dilute its deep friendship with China, which does not fit into the US-Pak strategic paradigm.
America would be much happier with a US-Pak-India relationship, built on a shared perception of regional threats. Senator John Kerry has described the resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue as "critical to the United States," and suggested that the Indian initiative is an extension of the new India-US relationship. More specifically, the US believes that India-Pak cooperation is essential to victory against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, Senator Kerry might have to convince General Kayani first.
Perhaps Dr. Singh is depending on the United States to tweak an ear or twist an arm in Islamabad at the appropriate moment, as he tries to woo Pakistan, by diluting the status of Kashmir's relationship with India. This is high-wire politics. We shall watch with some hope and greater apprehension.
M.J. Akbar is Director of Publications, Covert.