India’s PM regains the initiative, for now

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have regained the political initiative after his successful “cricket diplomacy” with Pakistan overshadowed, for now, a string of corruption scandals that have paralysed his second-term government.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Thu 31 Mar 2011, 3:14 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 11:22 PM

India’s win over Pakistan, watched by Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, caused euphoria among the business and political elites in the Mohali stadium, after months of scandal tarnished India’s image as an emerging global power.

Singh’s decision to invite Gilani was praised as helping kick-start talks on a variety of security issues in limbo since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But just as important was the perception of a prime minister back in control.

“Singh Is King,” was the headline of the Asian Age newspaper, referring to a Bollywood jingle last played when Singh won a 2008 confidence vote. “Manmohan’s Mohali Hunch Pays Off” was the headline in the Times of India.

The about-turn in Singh’s fortunes may be short. But his assertiveness and Sonia Gandhi’s appearance at the match in a symbolic show of support from India’s most powerful political figure may quash speculation Singh could lose office.

“His timing was fantastic,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan, “His combative mood just had to happen. Congress does not like to be boxed in.”

If it is a tipping point, it could also herald a new impetus to push reforms, such as allowing foreign investment into the modern supermarket sector, seen as necessary to help India compete with the likes of China.

A personal legacy

Singh’s invitation to Gilani appeared to come from his own prime ministerial office rather than his foreign minister, a sign this effort was personal and key to the legacy of a 78-year-old born in a village in what is now Pakistan.

For months the quietly spoken, stiff-looking leader appeared on the back foot after a telecoms corruption scam that may have cost India up to $39 billion in revenue sparked the blocking of parliament and opposition calls for Singh to quit.

The limbo hit Asia’s third-largest economy. Mumbai stocks have underperformed those in most other major emerging markets.

Other graft scandals not only effectively halted reform bills in parliament but had many wondering if Singh — for years seen as one of the more honest of India’s politicians — had lost the political will in his second term.

But this was not the first time Singh has surprised his detractors. He won a huge political battle to push through a U.S. civilian nuclear deal in parliament in 2008, putting his future on the line in a confidence vote that he eventually won.

Even before the cricket diplomacy, he won plaudits for a parliamentary performance last week in which he successfully attacked the opposition with surprising rhetorical flourishes.

“He does stick his neck out from time to time. Didn’t he do that for the nuclear deal?” said Sudha Pai, a professor of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Normally he’s a quiet person but whenever he is pushed and he thinks it’s necessary, he does it.”

“There is a general heightened sense of crisis within the UPA (the coalition government) that may be a reason for his actions.”

Congress also believes it could do well in state elections this year where the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have little chance of victory. Some analysts predict a new wave of reforms if Congress emerges unscathed.

Risks remain

But there are still huge risks ahead.

Indian leaders have often floundered by reaching out to Pakistan, only to face a sudden escalation in the six-decade-long conflict often blamed on hawks in Pakistan’s military outmanoeuvring weak civilian leaders.

“You cannot really rule out that threat unless the two countries really decide that incidents of terrorism will not derail their relations because that provides an opportunity to militants to achieve their objectives,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a Pakistani political analyst. Few analysts expect breakthroughs in India-Pakistan talks. With real power lying with Pakistan’s military, many question if it is worth talking to another weak civilian leader like Gilani.

In the time-honoured tradition of many second-term leaders, Singh may have turned to foreign policy because he has simply run out of ideas on the domestic front.

Corruption probes may widen, spurred on by an assertive Supreme Court. And federal police are due to reignite the telecoms scandal when they file their first charges — including against Singh’s former telecoms minister — on Saturday.

Food inflation is also showing little sign of abating and may prove a thorn in the side of Congress.

“It may soon be back to business as usual,” said Rangarajan. “We are in for a long, hot summer ahead.”

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