[The prime minister’s wallflower personality has come to define India on the world stage. When Chinese troops camped out for weeks recently on mountainous territory claimed by India, Mr. Singh’s muted response infuriated opposition politicians. And as the world’s great powers — the United States, China and Russia — have sought closer ties with India in recent years, Mr. Singh has either quietly rebuffed them or left them wanting more.]
By Gardiner Harris
Manish Swarup/Associated Press
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Sonia Gandhi, the
National Congress Party president, share power.
NEW DELHI — He speaks so softly that even his public comments are sometimes nearly inaudible. He has not held a formal news conference in India since 2011. And a pack of reporters were driven to hold a protest recently when he refused to participate in the routine political act of being photographed while filing for re-election in Assam State.
When India’s technocratic prime minister, Manmohan Singh, came to office in 2004, his obvious shyness was widely applauded as a virtue, a sign of the probity and quiet dignity of this accidental politician.
In recent months, however, Mr. Singh’s diffidence has taken on a darker cast as he refuses to address a growing number of controversies swirling around him. The magazine India Today ran a cover article this month titled “Dr. Dolittle,” which called him a political liability. Tehelka, another major newsmagazine, asked on its cover, “How long can the prime minister evade scrutiny in a season of scams?”
Rajdeep Sardesai, a television journalist and analyst, labeled Mr. Singh’s reserve a curse in a recent column in The Hindustan Times.
“His silence is now construed as weakness, his limited communication seems evidence of a leader with much to hide, and the ‘privacy’ argument is now seen as a sign of political nonaccountability.”
The prime minister’s wallflower personality has come to define India on the world stage. When Chinese troops camped out for weeks recently on mountainous territory claimed by India, Mr. Singh’s muted response infuriated opposition politicians. And as the world’s great powers — the United States, China and Russia — have sought closer ties with India in recent years, Mr. Singh has either quietly rebuffed them or left them wanting more.
Troubled by corruption scandals, Mr. Singh’s Indian National Congress Party and its coalition partners in the government must face voters no later than next year. Their great hope is that a lackluster economy will rebound by then to provide enough of a lift to overshadow the coalition’s missteps.
The most damaging controversy concerns the corrupt allocation of licenses to mine coal. Mr. Singh was the coal minister when the licenses were given out, so his role is central. But the country’s leading corruption investigator revealed this month that Mr. Singh’s office had demanded changes to what was supposed to be an independent inquiry into the scandal.
Mr. Singh’s personal integrity, a signature asset in a country awash in political corruption, was suddenly in doubt. Members of his own party began calling for his resignation, albeit in anonymous remarks. Even allies who still believe in his honesty say that he is failing.
“In the Congress Party, people generally think that he is honest,” a senior member of the party said in a recent interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity so that he could discuss internal party affairs. “But they think, ‘What is the point of this honesty?’ It must be reflected in the quality of administration.”
Opposition politicians demanded the resignation of the law minister and, because of a separate bribery inquiry, the railways minister as well. And they renewed calls for Mr. Singh to resign as well. In the past, India’s governing coalition has blithely brushed aside such demands. But after repeated criticism by commentators for a failure to act, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, met with Mr. Singh on May 10, and the resignations of the two ministers were announced the same day.
That meeting demonstrated once again the odd dynamic at the top of India’s government. Mr. Singh holds administrative power; Mrs. Gandhi holds political power. Does Mr. Singh run the government or does Mrs. Gandhi? It is a question that has been asked again and again for nearly a decade, but it is one that neither Mr. Singh nor Mrs. Gandhi has chosen to answer convincingly. Even insiders say they have trouble explaining the relationship between the two, and a top party official recently said publicly that having two power centers had not worked well.
The two leaders sought this week to dispel rumors of a rift between them by publicly praising each another. “There are no differences between the prime minister and me,” Mrs. Gandhi said Wednesday. “There is collective leadership.”
Few analysts interviewed were persuaded. “It’s taken an excessively long time for commentators to recognize how thoroughly incompetent as a prime minister Manmohan Singh is and how politically weak he has always been,” said Ramachandra Guha, a historian and analyst.
The government’s two-headed power structure has resulted in a confusing mix of policies. Over the past nine years, India’s government has built a vast infrastructure of welfare programs to feed and employ the rural poor and give them access to private hospitals — programs thought to result from Mrs. Gandhi’s socialist tendencies. But the government has also sought to attract foreign investment by opening protected sectors of the economy like retail and airlines to foreign competition — policies thought to result from Mr. Singh’s economic realism.
“Sonia and Manmohan have long been at odds on basic issues, and that has resulted in policies and politics that are at best confused and at worst contradictory,” said Sanjaya Baru, a former spokesman for the prime minister.
One of the few bright spots for the governing coalition is that its main political opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is in disarray. It was trounced this month in elections in a southern state, Karnataka, and a crucial ally in Bihar State has threatened to end its alliance. Its most prominent leader is a man reviled by many Muslims for having failed to prevent bloody riots in 2002.
So despite its many setbacks and worsening poll numbers, the governing coalition could win again next year. Some commentators have even suggested that Mr. Singh may serve a third term as prime minister, in part because Rahul Gandhi, Mrs. Gandhi’s son, does not seem to want the job.
Pankaj Pachauri, the prime minister’s spokesman, said the government’s main problem was that neither Mr. Singh nor Mrs. Gandhi liked to brag, so few were aware of the government’s accomplishments. As a result, the government this month began a $3 million advertising campaign focusing on its achievements and recently released statistics showing major gains in income and life expectancy and decreases in infant and maternal mortality.
“The gift of this prime minister to this country is five years of extra life for everyone,” Mr. Pachauri said. “And that’s why Dr. Singh and Mrs. Gandhi have full confidence in each other.”