India has become disillusioned with its robotic prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Sure, he walks and talks like R2-D2, but with nine years under his belt, he is now the country's third-longest serving premier, behind only the iconic Nehru and his daughter, Indira.
In the rough and tumble of Indian politics, no one gets so much time as PM without shrewd brains and steely resolve. Many a PM has squandered his mandate in a matter of months.
India complains that Singh is a silent weakling. In 2004, he was catapulted into premiership when his party boss, Sonia Gandhi, could not claim it for herself. Singh was already a darling of the middle class for heralding India's economic reforms of the '90s. They hoped that he would make India an economic superpower in short order.
Sonia's socialist bent kept him on a tight leash from the start, but both have been careful to present a united front. Sonia needs him until her son, Rahul, comes of age. He, in turn, wants to create a legacy for himself. His image, as well as that of his family, has been squeaky-clean. India re-elected him premier in 2009.
Emboldened, he pursued his long-cherished goal of peace with Pakistan. In success lay the seeds of his downfall. After a summit between himself and the Pakistani prime minister, he stood accused of ceding ground to the enemy. Sonia hauled him before her attack dogs, a modus operandi she employs whenever he seems to be getting out of hand.
Chastened, he put Pakistan on the back-burner. Overseas he was being hailed as a world statesman, in India his honeymoon was over. His detractors say that he is not even elected directly to parliament, but conveniently omit to mention that he could easily do so. Sonia seems happy to have him tottering thus for nine long years.
Scams started tumbling forth in his second term. One was easily explained as the misdeed of a coalition partner over whom his party had little leverage. But Sonia, not him, manages relations with allies, so why does he get pilloried? Another scam, this one related to coal contracts, has singed him directly.
Until the '70s, India's politicians used to go from door to door soliciting political donations. But Indira's son and Sonia's brother-in-law, Sanjay, put paid to all that measly begging. India had to buy arms from overseas. A cut would go to the party.
As India's economy has grown, not just foreign benefactors but domestic ones as well have got into the fray. A new class of robber barons has emerged, winning crony deals from politicians who control access to natural resources and consumer services. Almost every politician wielding power receives kickbacks, some of which line personal pockets, the rest going into party coffers.
Singh has never been accused of misappropriating a single cent for personal gain. But he has understood that if has to survive, he would have to turn a blind eye to much of the loot.
If Singh is not on the take, then where is the money going? Sonia has had a more checkered history with corruption, having been accused of shielding a personal friend from bribery charges. Occasional murmurs of Swiss bank holdings in her name come up, but these remain unsubstantiated. She counters any rumors by living relatively simply.
So if she too does not get it, then who gets the spoils? Obviously her party. The government showers benefits on the robber barons, who, in turn, pay the party back. A cozy triangle, this.
India's media tends to put Singh in the dock, belaboring why he does not stem the rot. But he can't. He has offered to resign, but Sonia refuses because he is still utile. Of course he can walk away, but quitting midstream seems to go against his grain.
People tend to underestimate Singh, just like they did his buddy George W. Bush. Singh, like Bush, possesses the rare gift of inviting calumny without overreacting. He knows his weaknesses, and confines himself to his strengths. Whenever the heat is on, he escapes to balmier climes abroad, just like W. repaired to his ranch. And Singh knows that he is as inarticulate as W., so he keeps his mouth shut.
Singh was a career bureaucrat before he joined politics. The accidental politician in him keeps swallowing his ego to walk the tightrope with Sonia. Numerous are the claimants to his throne, all of whom consider themselves political pros, but none can match his survivalism. His opponents chastise him in public, but point to his gentlemanliness in private. And whenever in trouble, Singh mouths an Urdu couplet or two to disarm all comers.
Whether Singh has been a proxy for Sonia, or whether he has been a power in his own right, is hard to decipher. In nine years with him as premier, India has not seen blood shed in the name of religion on the scale it would before him. The economy has grown at an annual average rate of 7% over the last nine years, bucking the global downturn. The country has also kept peace with its neighbors.
India's PM is still respected by his global peers. He has rescued India from nuclear pariahdom, and has opened the retail and airline sectors for foreign investment, all in the teeth of fierce domestic opposition. He has restrained Sonia whenever her socialist fantasies have threatened to keel over the nation's treasury.
History may not remember Singh as kindly as Nehru, but there is not a politician in India who would not kill to be in Singh's shoes. Warts and all, his tenure has been nowhere near as damaging as is being portrayed.