Nice guys may not finish last
The electoral contest in 2014 is changing dimensions. With the thundering entry of the newbie in Indian politics Aam Aadmi Party, all calculations have been thrown up in the air. That muffler wrapped face of Arvind Kejriwal is now all over our TV screens. Much more than BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the sitting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Dr Singh, after two uninterrupted tenures as prime minister, has hung his boots when he said last week, “In a few months time, after the general elections, I will hand the baton over to a new prime minister. I hope it will be a United Progressive Alliance-chosen prime minister.”
Passing the baton: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a press conference announced that he will step down after elections this year
However, Dr Singh actually handed over the baton on Friday itself to Rahul Gandhi by announcing that he is no longer the UPA’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014. The press conference, his third formal one in nine-and-a-half years was just that: an announcement of his retirement from active politics. As was amply clear during the recent assembly elections, no one wanted Dr Singh to be the face of the Congress party, nobody wanted him to campaign, and nobody wanted his endorsement. As a man and a prime minister, Dr Singh stands alone and friendless in the party that has nominated him two times as prime minister: a nice guy who took his niceness to the extreme by not reining in the wrongdoers in his cabinet.
At the press conference, the prime minister bristled at the oft-repeated question whether he accepted the allegation that he was a weak prime minister. A question that has repeatedly been hurled at him since 2004. He said, “I do not believe that I have been a weak prime minister ... I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media or for that matter the Opposition.” He added that history would be a kinder judge of his tenure as compared to the contemporary media.
He is not too off the mark. History has a way of glossing over misdeeds and looking at tenures of heads of state and government with rose tinted glasses, whether while judging Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Narasimha Rao, Indira Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But it was not for the prime minister to say that himself, it is for historians to record and people to judge. His comment smacked of intellectual snobbery and though Dr Singh’s speech and manner is gentle and sophisticated, there was a steely aggression in the way he did not admit to even a bit of regret.
It is this passive aggression that one has to admire in him. Something that has helped him survive in the cruel power corridors of Delhi. He probably learned the Machiavellian tricks of statecraft from his previous boss Narasimha Rao. The prime minister is well aware that the Congress was unanimous in view that he could not battle with BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. So when he said, “By strong prime minister you mean that you preside over the mass massacre of innocent civilians on the streets of Ahmedabad — if that is the measure of strength — I do not believe our country needs that kind of strength,” he was attacking Modi and his own colleagues who thought him unfit to take on Modi.
But in 2014, it will be a test of bold and aggressive strength of Modi versus the quiet and steely strength of Arvind Kejriwal versus the untested and modest strength of Rahul Gandhi. The Aam Aadmi Party has been the X factor that almost everybody dismissed as a flash in the pan earlier. Now in 2014, almost every party is in shock and awe of its phenomenal rise.
Arvind Kejriwal has once again proved that the combination of a soft exterior, sharp brains and quick decision making works like magic on Indians. Kejriwal’s first week in office has seen a new way of doing things in the country’s capital. Other chief ministers are grudgingly emulating his style of functioning. The return to austerity among leaders is a hark back to older times when simplicity was not just a façade, it was a way of life for India’s politicians.
The AAP’s acts like using public transport, not using beacons in their cars, their unpolished style of speaking, and their awkward gaffes are ridiculed by those who have already been compromised in Delhi. If they conform, they are damned; if they don’t, they are ridiculed. But in all their flip-flops and confusion there is a charm that is drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the AAP. The 2014 election has suddenly gotten so very interesting.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash