The late prime minister P V Narasimha Rao was fond of saying that the Indian PM's position was a very powerful one. The present prime minister however does not think so, even though he made a point of attending Rao's 88th birth anniversary celebration last week, where hardly any other Congressman was seen.
Dr Singh's ultimatum to Sonia Gandhi, that he could not continue in office if the government did not go ahead with the Indo-US nuclear deal, has again brought to the fore questions about the PM's role and authority in a coalition set up.
Weak or strong, the prime minister has given the impression of becoming a one issue PM of late, though he had said not long ago that his was not a one-issue government.
Small wonder that someone coming to Delhi from Srinagar last week remarked bitterly, "Here no one can think of anything else but the nuke deal; it is as if nothing else matters to the government of India."
The Kashmir situation has been deteriorating since early June, threatening to go back to what it was in 1990. Clouds had been gathering but no attention is being paid. South Block's attention was otherwise engaged. The less said about North Block, the better. A dejected prime minister had cut himself off not meeting many people.
When one lakh people marched in Kashmir last Friday, protesting against the land given to the Amarnath shrine board, shouting slogans for `azadi' and for Pakistan., those sitting in Delhi were immersed in the "deal versus no deal" discourse, to the exclusion of all else.
The PM's spin doctors are now giving a different interpretation to his ultimatum to Sonia Gandhi -- that what was a stake was not the prime minister's honour but the country's credibility in the international arena. And that no one will take India seriously if the government does not operationalise the deal. Why would Putin believe India if the prime minister gives an undertaking on climate change at the G-8 meet in Japan?
There is weight in this argument. But there is also weight in the countervailing arguments -- that the nuke deal may have a bearing on India's sovereign decision making.
But put aside the merits versus demerits argument for a moment, and come to the more practical aspect of decision making. The PM should never have gone so far, argue the deal's opponents, without ensuring the support of the Left, which has not been forthcoming. The stand of the Left has not changed over the months. If anything, it has hardened after the Hyde Act. You may want to do business with Budhadeb Bhattacharya or Jyoti Basu or Sitaram Yechury, but the PM cannot wish away Prakash Karat at the head of the Communist Party of India-Marxist today.
The mandate in 2004 was after all not for Dr Manmohan Singh, nor for the Congress, nor for the UPA by itself. It was for the coalition as it was constituted with the Left parties supporting it from outside -- however distasteful it might be for some to accept it.
Manmohan Singh may be sincere in believing that the deal is good for India. Karat may be sincere in believing that the deal will compromise India's independent foreign policy. Both have a right to their points of view. Contending viewpoints are the warp and woof of democratic functioning, though rarely has an issue on foreign policy divided the country so sharply as has the Indo-US nuclear deal.
There is no reason why the PM should be defensive about facing the world leaders at the G-8 meet in Hokkaido, whatever be the government's decision on the nuke deal. Nor is there a case for giving the world an impression that the prime minister is powerless, and no one is listening to him. Manmohan Singh has tried his best to convince his partners. He has not succeeded. That can happen in any democratic set up, and it would not be the first time it has happened. The head of a government does not call it quits as a result.
Narasimha Rao, under whose premiership Manmohan Singh opened up the economy, was a past master at using differing viewpoints in the country to ward off international pressures on Kashmir -- and to bargain better.
The prime minister's ultimatum in some way also conveys his frustration with being pushed around. It is true that in the last four years he has allowed Sonia Gandhi to run the show, has put up with all kinds of slights and harsh words, from L K Advani to Ravi Shankar Prasad to Karat, who now blames him for the present political crisis. This despite the fact that the Congress has not spoken up for him. If it did, it was a one liner to complete a formality. Those who spoke up in his favour were viewed with suspicion.
While this may be true, the fact is that Dr Singh was chosen to fill the top slot because it was felt that he would not queer the pitch for Sonia Gandhi, as some others might have done. But having said that -- and acknowledging the constraints under which Dr Singh has had to operate -- he could have pushed for greater manoeuvrability in the space given to him. Power is rarely handed over; it is seized and wielded. The trouble is that Manmohan Singh has felt more comfortable with bureaucrats than with politicians. That is probably why he has not been able to utilise the services of politicians in his government to help him move more strategically.
Today people want a firm handling of the situation. They want Manmohan Singh to lead, not to hand in his resignation. The prime minister cannot have the luxury of taking things personally. For the last four years he has presided over the economy, which is now facing difficult challenges with the price situation spinning out of control and people's economic hardship growing. An economist prime minister is expected to get a grip over the situation, not walk into the sunset because he is feeling let down.
As for the Congress, it must stop dithering and decide quickly, either way, on the nuke deal. It has no business to subject the country to a prolonged period of uncertainty which has taken over, affecting decision making at all levels, be it Kashmir or the economy.
If it resolves to go ahead with the deal -- which from all accounts it has decided -- it must opt for early elections, so that a new government can be in the saddle to deal with a difficult situation that is developing.
Instead, the Congress seems caught up in an exercise to ward off the elections to February next year, either by mobilising new allies in place of the Left, like the Samajwadi Party, which would give it breathing space. Or by putting off the monsoon session till August, when the break with the Left would come, and which may technically allow it to continue as a caretaker government till early next year.
This may suit the politicians but the country could do without a long spell of a caretaker government which will have little authority with officials or with business at a time when tough measures may be called for. This is the least the politicians owe the people of India.