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Sunday, July 6, 2008

DR. Singh has worn a brilliant camouflage. He has smiled his way through four years. He positioned himself above politics, which won him much empathy among the middle class. But politics was always lurking below him. Perhaps he started to believe that Karat too was purchasable

I n the second last week of June, after nearly fifty months of office, Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered Congress President Sonia Gandhi one of two options. She could either support the Singh-George Bush nuclear partnership and shoot herself in the Left foot, or she could abandon the Marxists who had carried the government on their uneven shoulders and shoot herself in the Right foot. If the bullet went Left, the partnership would fracture, hobbling the Congress severely in its effort to remain the core of a future non-BJP alliance. If the bullet went Right, the credibility of the Manmohan Singh government, already in hospital, would be put permanently to sleep.

The root of the dilemma is a paradox. Dr. Manmohan Singh has run a Right-wing government with Left-wing support. The prime minister is Right, if not right, by instinct and conviction. The Marxists knew this, but calculated that if this was the price to be paid to keep the BJP out, then so be it. Every price is a trade-off between cost and value. The Left offered Dr. Manmohan Singh a credit card, but every credit card has an upper limit, unless you are a fool ready to be parted with all your money. The upper limit was reached with the strategic, technological and economic partnership that the prime minister arranged with the United States, a pact that would keep India in the American camp for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Manmohan Singh came to power on the strength of the common man, the aam aadmi. He has spent four years courting just one khaas aadmi, George Bush. It was his bad luck, I presume, that the alliance should have been with a man who is now the most unpopular president in the history of the United States since polling began in 1928. But one must laud the power of true love: nothing could deter Dr. Manmohan Singh from investing all his assets in one man, Bush.

In actual fact, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi had little real choice. Allies like the DMK, desperate for a few extra months in power, largely so that they could make yet more money, urged her to save the government. You can only save what exists, and Dr. Manmohan Singh's government no longer exists. The joy has gone out of this administration, as is evident from every photograph of any cabinet minister; they look punctured and limp.

If that statement surprises you, it is because we associate a break with a sharp sound, and there has been no such crackle from Delhi. But only something hard breaks with a snap. Think instead of a cake. Have you ever heard a cake crumble? Disintegration can also be soundless.

The image of a cake is doubly appropriate because this government has lived on the principle of a cake won in a lottery. Everyone has been digging into the national cake with a diligence and greed that will find their place in the annals of our time, while the prime minister has watched helplessly, unable and unwilling to control the corruption that is rife.

Dr. Manmohan Singh has worn a brilliant camouflage. He has smiled his way through four years. He positioned himself above politics, which won him much empathy among the urban middle class, which has grown tired of the cynicism that imbues contemporary politics. But politics was always lurking below him, in its many different manifestations. Perhaps he began to believe that CPI[M] general secretary Prakash Karat too was purchasable, and all it needed was successful negotiation to complete the deal. He forgot the upper limit of the Marxist credit card, beyond which an individual or an institution becomes a pauper. The distance between wealth and the poorhouse is often no more than a single mistake.

The final decision on the direction of the bullet was not in Dr. Manmohan Singh's hands, because he has always been in office, rather than in power. But his assessment was correct when he told Mrs. Sonia Gandhi on the morning of 18 June that he could not continue as prime minister if the nuclear deal was aborted. He is identified with a single cause, central to his prime ministership, both domestically and internationally. In India, he cannot go to the electorate with nothing to say except that he had survived by pawning his convictions. In the more immediate term, he surely wondered how he was going to face parliament during the Monsoon Session. Between a deflated deal and inflated prices, the enlarged opposition (now including the Left) will expose the government's impotence each day on national television. A majority in parliament is more than a technical necessity; it must be a vocal fact, or a government can get drowned. One of the advantages of an early election would be that the Singh government would not have to face a parliament session during which it could get repeatedly humiliated.

Out of India, the prime minister would be a faceless nonentity at the G-8 Summit in Japan between 7 and 9 July, the last opportunity to push through a deal with the personal intervention of the Singh-Bush partnership. The official deadline for the compact is 20 January 2009, the day Bush demits office and hands over power, hopefully, to Barack Obama. The practical deadline is 9 July 2008. To have any hope of success, Dr. Manmohan Singh must reach Japan with a formal decision in his files. Anything else would fetch him a few wan smiles, and an occasional hullo while the rest continue with discussions of substance between themselves.

I am an avid reader of bridge columns, largely because the mathematics of games of chance can be engrossing. But there is a second reason to check out some of the popular American bridge columns. They tend to begin with a wisecrack, which may or may not be wise, but is certainly a crack. On the day after the non-meeting between the government and the Left, Frank Stewart of the New York Times had a good opening bon mot: "If you let a smile be your umbrella, your rear end will get soaking wet."

For four years Dr. Manmohan Singh has let his smile be his umbrella, and the monsoons have arrived.

M.J. Akbar is Chairman of Covert, the fortnightly news magazine.

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