By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS
New Delhi, May 20. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh begins his third year in office Monday winning accolades for his quiet no-nonsense administrative style and personal probity but gaining few marks as a politician.
In the two tumultuous years that have gone by, Manmohan Singh, 73, has turned his unassuming personality – which many thought was a weakness to govern India – as his greatest strength, winning friends aplenty in India and abroad.
Even the Left, which remains a trenchant critic of his economic outlook while providing crucial backing to his coalition government, admires his squeaky clean reputation. Almost everyone talks about his humility and simplicity.
Behind the velvet veneer, say his cabinet colleagues, is a prime minister who knows his mind, has a clear vision and wants to see India emerge as an economic powerhouse at the earliest. He is absolutely no pushover.
Political analyst G.V.L. Narasimha Rao says that his personal reputation has been the biggest strength to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a disparate coalition of mainly regional groups backed by the Left.
"The persona of Manmohan Singh has been a huge benefit to the UPA," Rao told IANS. "Thanks to his integrity the government has been fairly stable and enjoys a serious image.
"His personal conduct and integrity are beyond any doubt. He has withstood pressures from coalition partners. He does not want to yield to pressures for political compulsions although he has been forced to on a few occasions.
"Manmohan Singh has struck a middle path. At the same time he feels that there are areas where he won't make any compromises because of national interests."
The business community is all for him.
"The prime minister's greatest strength is his economic background and clarity of mind. He has been successful in instilling confidence in the people about the stability of the government and pursuance of liberalisation policies," said D.S. Rawat, secretary general of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham).
A leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) credited Manmohan Singh with good governance.
"He has provided relatively clean administration; the stench of corruption is not staring every face," said the central committee member who did not want to be named.
"He is a fairly efficient manager. In fact he is a far better economic manager than (the previous government) ever was."
Yet, within the Congress party, his position remains weak. He enjoys the complete trust of party president Sonia Gandhi, who addresses him as "Doctor" or "Sir", but he still has no independent power base.
This was evident when, after the May 11 assembly election results, Congress MP Ajit Jogi managed to get several signatures to a campaign seeking the replacement of Manmohan Singh by Sonia Gandhi. It is a different matter that a furious Sonia Gandhi put her foot down and the dissent quickly died out.
This, everyone admitted, is the problem.
Said Rao: "We all know that Manmohan Singh cannot mobilise even 10 MPs around him. If only a real campaign against him were to start, every MP would sign in favour of Sonia (Gandhi). He would not have even two MPs on his side. If there is a conflict with Sonia, he would never win."
The fact that he lost the 1999 Lok Sabha election from a largely middle class constituency of South Delhi remains a black spot in his political career.
No wonder some of the ministers are pulling in their own directions and — despite gentle admonitions by Sonia Gandhi, the glue behind the UPA — acting in a manner that appears to question Manmohan Singh's leadership.
When he became prime minister after Sonia Gandhi declined the post, a stunned world watched as an academic-turned-bureaucrat-turned politician took over the reins of the world's largest democracy.
Under his leadership, India has shown a robust growth rate, inflation is under control, the manufacturing sector is booming, exports are up and foreign exchange reserves are very comfortable.
Barring occasional hiccups, there is no major social or communal tension. Despite setbacks, the Congress-led coalition remains on a strong wicket, while the opposition is not in the pink of health.
Manmohan Singh has taken bilateral ties with the US to new heights while relations with Pakistan are stable and improving. The country enjoys high rating in the global community.
Yet he has displayed occasional weaknesses by yielding to political pressures. He is still seen as a technocrat, not a politician.
Said the CPI-M leader: "By temperament Manmohan Singh is a bureaucrat, not a politician. His gut instincts are not that of a politician. So he is not able to respond to what people, the mass of poor, feel and need."
Rao agreed: "He remains a techno politician. He has not matured as a politician. But he maintains a fairly healthy balance. His main strength is his vision, his understanding of India's governance."
Said one of his ministers, speaking on the condition of anonymity: "Manmohan Singh is courteous and straightforward. But he is only an administrator, not a politician."
Another minister added: "The prime minister is a stickler for rules. He keeps telling us: you should measure your words."
Only the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems unhappy with him.
"Manmohan Singh occupies the highest office but he has no power," BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said, comparing him with Sonia Gandhi. "His reputation has been tarnished to a great extent in these two years."
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen not only disagreed but summed up his view thus: "Manmohan is an extremely warm and kind person, and I think these qualities are important even in the practice of politics."