Uninspiring executive

The success of a prime minister is not measured by the duration of tenure in office. Therefore the fact that Manmohan Singh has become the third longest-serving prime minister of the country does not bring any special credit to him. Last week he crossed Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure of 2,272 days in office and has only Jawaharlal Nehru (6,130 days) and Indira Gandhi (5,829 days) ahead of him.

What makes Singh’s achievement notable is that he made it without ever being number one or any number in the party. That certainly detracted from his political authority and even constrained him in exercising his powers as the country’s chief executive.

He was an accidental prime minister as he was awarded the office by Sonia Gandhi who did not want to take it up for her own reasons. There have been other accidental prime ministers, but except for P V Narasimha Rao others would find it difficult to earn more than a passing reference in history.

Singh has done better than them, especially because his prime ministerial tenure is taken in conjunction with his tenure as finance minister in the 90s which gave a new direction to the country. But as a manager of the government team, he might struggle to score a respectable score. In the second UPA government in particular, his inability to give a positive push to government and to exercise control over his ministers has been very evident.

High corruption within the government and in top places is taken for granted. Coalition politics is not the only factor to blame for the decline of the prime minister’s power and authority. He also has had the embarrassment of the party not extending full public support to him on occasions. Lack of a personal and political power base has helped Singh in some situations but has harmed him many times.

Though the last elections may be seen as a popular endorsement of his prime ministership, he still remains largely an outsider. Personal integrity, decency and a clean image have been his strong points but leadership has not been considered as one of them.

Singh’s prime ministership is sometimes cited as a vindication of the idea that anybody can reach the highest position in India’s democracy. But it may also be proof of the fact that the brightest and the most honest person will not always make the most effective prime minister.

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