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India's three new centres of power

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-24

NEW DELHI - As Dr Manmohan Singh returned to his seat in an ornate room at the presidential palace here moments after he was sworn in as India's 13th prime minister last Saturday, he conspicuously nodded to two people.

One was his political patron, the Italian-born Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party that's leading the coalition that will now rule this country of 1.1 billion people. After all, it was her decision not to become prime minister herself that cleared the way for Dr Singh's ascension.

The other figure was Mr Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the crusty grand old man of India's Communist Party (Marxist). Because the Left holds almost 70 seats in the newly elected Lok Sabha, the 543-member lower house of Parliament, its support will be essential for Dr Singh. To put it another way, if Mr Surjeet - a Sikh, like Dr Singh - withdraws his backing, the Congress coalition will collapse.

That nod from Prime Minister Singh to Mrs Gandhi and Mr Surjeet may have been out of courtesy rather than gratitude. But it was as clear an indication as any that, for the first time in India's 58 years as an independent nation, there are now three major points of power in national governance: the prime minister's office (PMO); the Congress Party leadership; and the Left's Politburo.

How those three elements get along with one another is going to determine more than the longevity of the Singh Administration.

Their relationship will shape the composition of the government, which will be fully known in the course of the next day or two. It will influence the administration's economic policy - whether Dr Singh will pursue with special vigour the liberalisation programs that he himself initiated back in 1991, when he was finance minister under Mr P. V. Narasimha Rao, the last prime minister of the Congress. Mr Surjeet, reflecting the general ideology of the Left, is known to oppose measures such as the privatization of unproductive public-sector behemoths on the grounds that India doesn't offer adequate safety nets for millions of workers who would be dismissed. Other Leftists are less than thrilled about the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign investors, who have been pouring funds into the manufacturing, high-tech and call-centre sectors at the rate of some US$3 billion a year.

Dr Singh will also have to take into account the Left's resistance to new taxes, other than on the wealthy. Since he's also India's finance minister now, he will have to present a new budget to Parliament next month. With the country's deficit reported to be 4.8 percent of the US$600 billion gross domestic product, Dr Singh is going to have to find new revenue sources. Moreover, the Left wants him to increase subsidies for kerosene and for farmers, while global watchdog agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - whose views often influence private-sector capital flows - prescribe just the opposite.

Then there's the thorny question of land reform. The unreconstructed Left wants the government to push for major land redistribution. Close advisors to Dr Singh argue that such ideological measures would be unwelcome in a contemporary world economy that's moving toward private ownership of land, not collectivization of property.

There's also the matter of alliances in world politics. Under the now departed administration of the National Democratic Alliance - the 22-party coalition dominated by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - India developed conspicuously closer economic and military ties to the United States. It also strengthened its relationship with Israel, arranging several big-ticket arms deals with the Jewish state. And India moved to reinforce its economic relations with South-east Asia, most notably with Singapore.

Of those initiatives, only the relationship with Singapore is likely to be consolidated further under the Singh administration. That's because the new prime minister and his trusted aides see Singapore offering strong prospects of serving as an offshore financial centre for India. Neither the left-of-centre Congress High Command, and certainly not Mr Surjeet's Leftists, are especially enamoured of a close relationship with Washington; their distaste for US President George W. Bush's policies concerning Iraq has been frequently articulated. And as for Israel, India is likely to revert to its traditional support for a Palestinian state. Such support was predicated on the assumption that an Arab-oriented Middle East policy would prompt reciprocity by way of Arab backing for India's claims on Kashmir, a territory over which it has fought neighbouring Pakistan for several decades.

As Dr Singh settles into the prime minister's office in the handsome sandstone complex of South Block in this capital city, he's also going to have to deal with public perceptions of his power. There's little doubt that Mrs Gandhi will be the new 'Empress of India,' a moniker that was applied, quite appropriately, to her late mother-in-law, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who served both as head of government and titular leader of her party. Mrs Sonia Gandhi is determined to rebuild the Congress Party, especially at the grassroots, and given her strong personality and popularity it's unlikely that Dr Singh will want to cross her. She has the luxury of enjoying power without the formal responsibility.

Dr Singh, moreover, is an economist by training and a technocrat by vocation. He doesn't have a political constituency, being a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the largely ceremonial 245-member upper house of Parliament. 'He's going to take his cues from Sonia Gandhi,' says Ms Vichitra Sharma, a longtime political observer in New Delhi. 'Their common cause, and that of the Left, will be a relentless desire not to let the BJP return to power ever again. They will want to stay in control of the government forever.'

But in politics, as in life, nothing is forever. There are already murmurs in Delhi's permanent government, the all-powerful bureaucracy, that Prime Minister Singh needs to be more strong-willed in his dealings with the political chieftains in the Congress and the Left. There are already murmurs that his low-key personality and modest elocution, may not resonate well with India's masses, who are more accustomed to assertive political leaders. And there are murmurs that Dr Singh may wind up spending more of his time than is healthy in balancing the competing demands of Mrs Gandhi and the Left.

On the other hand, he's been in office for barely two days. Dr Singh has a lot of good will to draw on from India's people, who see him as an able, decent man with little political baggage. Still, there's the old saw that in Indian politics, at least, men of decency wind finding fulfillment in ashrams, not in the hurly-burly of governance.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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