Faced with the spectre of its worst performance ever, the Congress party has found Manmohan Singh, its prime minister of 10 years who had gone conspicuously missing from its campaign this election. A 50-second video, “Thank you, Dr Manmohan Singh” — posted on the party’s official YouTube account — claims and projects his government’s successes after attributing them to his leadership, from the jump in installed power capacity to rural roads, from the penetration of rural telephony to the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor.
The video could mark a burst of post-exit poll wisdom, a gracious afterthought. Or not. After all, even this belated homage to Singh has come after Congressmen’s fervent and ungainly attempts to firewall Rahul Gandhi from accountability after Friday have led many to wonder aloud if Singh would return to the public stage, after all, in the role of scapegoat. This last-minute acknowledgement of its prime minister may only be the party’s self-serving attempt to counter that speculation.
If there was one overriding theme of the UPA regime, especially in its second term, it was its complicity in the unchecked diminution of its prime minister. A measure of prime ministerial diffidence was built into the ruling arrangement that took over in 2004. The mandate was for Sonia Gandhi, who then nominated Singh as PM, while functioning as the political centre of gravity for the Congress-led UPA.
But the ways in which the Congress party then contributed to the weakening of the prime ministerial office — by disowning his initiatives, as on Sharm el-Sheikh, by sidestepping his authority, as on retrospective taxation and 2G, or by simply spiriting away a chunk of the PM’s prerogative to an extra-constitutional National Advisory Council — have not just scarred Singh’s legacy. They have also undermined the institution of the executive and laid the ground for the clamour for a “stronger”, more “decisive” leadership at the Centre that has so comprehensively overtaken the UPA in this election.
The defining image of UPA 2 could be Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s afternoon ambush of his own party’s government and its PM, who was away on a foreign visit, in the unforgettable press conference in September last year. That was when he trashed the government-piloted ordinance on convicted lawmakers as “complete nonsense” and threatened to tear it up and throw it away.
Whatever the outcome on May 16, the Congress has much to regret and reflect on, and by all indications, it will have ample time and space to do so. It must start with the terrible shrinking of the man who brought such unfailing forbearance to a job he did not seek or get elected to.