Manmohan Singh: Sonia’s Prime Minister: The Indian Democracy is Good Entertainment

By Kollengode S Venkataraman in July 2004 Issue

I was in Japan and China when the weeklong tamasha unfolded  in India after the April-May parliamentary elections. Contrary to the prediction of political pundits and pollsters — the Indian talking heads call them psephologists — the BJP-led coalition lost the majority and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party came back to power with its left coalition.

In India, the wide inequity between the upwardly mobile anglized class and the poor in access to resources such as quality primary education, healthcare, and communiation tools is there for all to see for anybody who cares. Since the Indian polity has no consensus on addressing these basic issues, and since the society as a whole is corrupt in myriad ways, Indian elections are always a verdict against those in power. So, nobody is surprised in India (unless you are a dumb Indian psephologist or a political pundit/academic sitting in his/her ivory tower) when the ruling party loses elections. 

Seeing the Indian political tamasha on TVs while traveling in interior Japan and interior China revealed how immature the Indian political system is. It was there for all to see when Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, French, and Japanese satellite TVs, not to speak of BBC and CNN, beamed video footage from Delhi.

Sonia, characteristic of the Congress Party’s hoary tradition, was playing the wait-and-see game, hyping up her cronies’ raw emotions against those nebulous and anonymous people who were portrayed to stand in her way preventing her from becoming the prime minister.

It was pathetic to see the Congress Party’s newly elected parliament members on camera crying in distraught as if Sonia has died. One by one, like minstrels in the Mughal court, they were in front of world TV chokingly pleading with Sonia that she is the only person they would accept as the prime minister. In the dry, scorching heat of Delhi in May, Congress cronies were lying on their back on the road in front of Sonia’s house, trying to change her mind. One guy stood in front of camera pointing a gun to his own temple that he would kill himself if Sonia does not become the prime minister. Sonia’s cronies made sure that she got the maximum mileage out this “spontaneously” staged drama. 

To further embellish the comic effect, the BJP MP, Sushma Swaraj, declared that she would not accept the Italian-born Sonia as the prime minister, and if Sonia does indeed becomes prime minister, she (that is, Sushma) would tonsure her head, and wear only white dress, reminding people of the social violence that the Hindu orthodoxy, decades ago, inflicted upon women when they were widowed. 

This is the reality of how democracy is perverted and debased in India, world’s largest democracy, in the backdrop of its Bollywood glamour, its skinny models in skimpy dresses cat walking in Mumbai and Bangalore fashion shows, its high-tech and biotech industries, its IT boom, and its nuclear bombs and missiles technology.

I also heard the ridiculous idea of Sonia’s son Rahul, barely in his late twenties and a political novice, elected for the first time to the Indian parliament under the Gandhi halo, tipped for the premiership by Gandhi cronies, if Sonia could not become the premier because of her foreign origin.

 Given this pathetic background, Indians are so delusional that when they entertain the idea of India becoming a regional superpower. Political maturity is the fist requirement for any nation-state for becoming a strong power. India is pathetic.

 The only sane voice came from the chief minister of one of the newer, smaller states (Uttaranchal or Jharkhand, I do not remember), who on camera said, it is pitiful that in a country of over 100 crore (one billion people), they could not find a native Indian for the job.

Finally, after the Mumbai stock market tumbled losing over 20% on a single day on the possibility for political instability if Sonia becomes the prime minister, and after Sonia got more publicity than what she could ever fantasize, she made the supreme “sacrifice” of turning down the prime ministership, and appointed the politically unambitious techno-bureaucrat, the 71-year old Manmohan Singh for the job.

The Indian media went into high gear on the “sacrifice” theme.  Columnists and Congress cronies started comparing Sonia to Ramayana’s Rama, who abdicated the throne to go on a 14-year vana-vaasam  (exile), and to Bhishma, in Mahabharata, who also declined the throne. 

Dileep Padgaonkar, the Western-educated journalist associated with Times of India, took the political hyperbole to a new height when he wrote something to the effect that Sonia becoming the prime minister would be in the finest example of India’s Vedantic tradition (!).

I would say that it was India’s misunderstood Vedantic tradition of focusing exclusively on personal salvation to the total neglect of building strong, fair, all-inclusive society, that made possible recurring invasions by Turks, Mongols, and later by European traders, who ended up ruling and lording over India. 

Sonia’s “sacrifice” is one bold stroke that gained  her enormous sympathy both within India and even internationally. At the same time, it is also her shrewdest move. After all, she knows her limits. Her “foreign-bornness” is only one of her constraints. She waited for over 15 years after getting married into the Indira Gandhi household, till the prospect of her husband Rajiv Gandhi becoming prime minister brightened, to renounce her Italian citizenship and become an Indian citizen.

As a foreign-born, her entry into Indian national politics is through the bedroom of Indira Gandhi’s household. She is not known for her erudition, or oratory, or other leadership qualities. She exploited the Congress Party’s culture of cult-worship and sycophancy. As the White, Italian-born latter-day convert to Indian citizenship, if she becomes Indian prime minister, she has to deal with Pakistan, Western Europe and the US. Any concession she makes as India’s prime minister in dealing with these would be traced back to her Italian origin, and her whiteness, and her late acceptance of the Indian citizenship. 

Even as she “sacrificed” premiership, she is in absolute control of her Congress Party. Besides, Manmohan Singh has given her the status of a cabinet member without holding any portfolio by virtue of being the leader of the left coalition. So, she will sit in all the meetings.

By thus retaining the true center of power in the Congress Party, and the focus of power in the coalition, she wields enormous clout without any accountability in government as well. Not a single decision of any importance in the government would be taken without her visible and invisible stamp of approval. Her sycophantic coterie would make sure of that. Already, foreign leaders are contacting her soon after customarily congratulating Manmohan Singh! 

This gives her extraordinary opportunity to further consolidate her position because this arrangement ensures that she could take credit for everything good (Congress cronies would make sure of this, for sure). Yet she could insulate herself from the government (including the prime minister she appointed) from all things going bad in running a government.

People holding no official position having enormous influence in organizational matters is quite typically “Indian.” We see them in “Indian” organizations such as temples and social organizations even outside India. Indian have even coined a term for this during Indira Gandhi’s reckless son Sanjay Gandhi’s time: Extra-constitutional center of power. 

Also, by keeping the party and Indian federal government fully under her control, Sonia keeps the seat warm for her son and daughter. In the next ten years, you will see both of them in the center stage of Indian power politics. In the nominally republic of India, dynasties do continue, whether it is in Bollywood, classical performing arts, national and state politics — even in succession of leaderships in publicly traded joint-stock companies.

When Manmohan Singh’s appointment became reality, I saw while  in China Western media heaping praise on him, on his Oxford-Cambridge education, on his minority status as a Sikh, and how wonderfully Singh, as the finance minister under prime minister Narasimha Rao, turned around the Indian economy in the late 1990s. Then, when I landed in India a few days later, Indian media, particularly the English media, taking their cue from their Western masters, were parroting the same themes, along identical lines, on Indian airwaves.

When Swaran Singh became India’s foreign minister, or when Zail Singh became India’s president, nobody branded them as “minority.”

Another Indian talking head was repeating what I heard on BBC
while in China: A foreign-born Roman Catholic (Sonia) “sacrificing” her opportunity of becoming prime minister by favoring a “minority” Sikh (Manmohan Singh), who was administered the oath of office by a Muslim president Abdul Kalam, in a Hindu-majority India. Nobody cared to say Kalam was chosen by the “Hindu” nationalist BJP.

During the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers under General Niazi surrendered to Indian military (in Chittagong or Dhakha, I don’t remember) in the nascent Bangladesh. The Indian chief of staff was General Manekshaw, a Parsi, and the person in charge of the Eastern Air Command (I think) was Gen Jacob, an Indian Jew, and the person in charge of the campaign in the Eastern Theater was India’s Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora, a handsome Sikh. Lt. Gen. Arora accepted the surrender Gen. Niazi.

Over 30 years ago, nobody in India saw the event through the colored glass of their minority status. But those who know the bloody Sikh history (Ahmad Shah plundering the Punjab during his invasions centuries ago, and Sikh Gurus getting beheaded under Mughal rule, and Mohammad Ghori and Mohammad Gazni’s lootings in India) saw poignancy in the army chief of an avowed Muslim nation (Pakistan) surrendering himself and 90,000 of his men to a Sikh general. People might have talked about in personal conversations. But I don’t remember people writing about it.

On the turning around the Indian economy, it is necessary to keep things in perspective: In the 1980s, India has been under the Congress Party rule for well over 45 years, mostly under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, or Rajiv Gandhi. The party took India down the road of neglecting infrastructure development (road, basic healthcare, and primary and secondary education, water, and power), and spent huge amounts of taxpayer money on massive Russian-style government-funded industries, almost all of which lost money over the 45 years of its rule. 

Finally, under Narasimha Rao, India almost became a failed state with a foreign exchange reserve barely over $900 million (one dollar for every living Indian), barely enough to pay for 2 weeks of imports.

With the IMF and World Bank breathing down their necks, Rao and Singh had no other option other than listening to the dictates of IMF and World Bank to shutting down or privatize government-run industries. Even within India, as early as in the 1970s, locally grown and locally educated Indian political thinkers wrote copiously on the disastrous consequence of Congress Party’s policy of government running industries by draining taxpayer money. Since they were not educated in Europe or the US, their contribution never get mentioned by today’s brown saheb talking heads in India.

Praising Singh as the architect of India’s liberalization implies that Rao and Singh had the prescience to pro-actively decide in good economic times to change the direction of India’s economy. But the reality is, Congress Party’s Rao and Singh were forced to fix the problem that their party carefully created for over 45 years.

We wish Manmohan Singh all the best. Mr.Singh is now Sonia’s prime minister. We want him to be India’s prime minister. But given Congress Party’s cultish history (built around Nehru, Indira, Sanjay, Rajiv, and now Sonia, and may be her kids down the road), one wonders if Singh will have, or has the political astuteness to create for himself, enough political space to become just that.  END


  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.