Manmohan Singh: Short-term Politician with a Long-term Vision

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has emerged triumphant from the firestorm of nuclear politics and in the process discovered a true politician in himself. Let no one any longer dismiss Singh as a brilliant but staid policy wonk/ bureaucrat who was pushed into India's highest and most politicized office by a quirk of fate.

He is now perhaps India's most battle-tested politician, having first unleashed defining economic reform in the early 1990s amid a climate of intense political acrimony, and now firmly planting India into the nuclear club in the face a potentially terminal challenge to not just his government but his own political future. The common underlying theme in both his adventures has been his unshakable conviction about the righteousness of his cause and a rarely recognized ability to turn that into a valuable political asset.

It would be na've to believe that the July 22 parliamentary vote of confidence motion could have been won without employing a particularly sordid brand of political deal making. However, that is precisely the point behind the rise of Singh the politician. Tacitly or otherwise he suppressed his natural apolitical instincts and chose to go along with whatever his party had to do enlist enough support. It is nearly impossible to ascertain the veracity of the allegations of bribery made by some opposition lawmakers in the run-up to the vote. What is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty that Singh was bound to have known that a vote of this consequence and value would have required some pretty questionable machinations by the politically seasoned figures in his Congress Party.

Unlike in the early 1990s, when Singh was cushioned against any direct hit while pushing his economic reform agenda, this time around he was directly exposed personally. In many ways, quite like the economic reform, the India-US civilian nuclear deal was his personal passion. From all available accounts he saw it as a defining legacy of his leadership. That he was willing to go to the extent of staking his own future on the deal and willingly trample upon the egos of his crucial Marxist allies is indicative of how strongly Singh believes in the deal.

While no one can discount the unwavering and decisive support he received from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in the final analysis the nuclear deal would go down as Singh's signature political accomplishment. Of course, there is still a very real possibility of all of this falling apart if the United States Congress does not to vote in favor of the deal. However, the Indian side of the bargain has been delivered with forcefulness that few in the Bush administration might have suspected Singh capable of doing.

The 76-year-old Singh ought to know that given the long cycle of nuclear energy production he may not be around to witness all its benefits. That is what makes his commitment to the deal even more authentic. With the economic reform he would have rationally argued in his own mind that he would experience the results of his transformative agenda in his lifetime. That did indeed turn out to be the case. One can never presume that he will not be around 20 years hence as a 96-year-old to see if his second transformative agenda would indeed come to be realized.

It is not even certain whether nuclear power is really the answer to India's or the world's ever growing energy needs. Within the United States, the record of nuclear power generation has not been that impressive. According to the US Department of Energy's latest nuclear energy overview, the total number of operable nuclear power units has remained unchanged at 104 since 1998. As of March, 2008, these 104 units combined produced 64,330 million kilowatthours of net nuclear electricity generation, which represents a share of 19.6 percent of the net electricity generation.

Singh has to be conscious of the inherently long-term nature of his decision. It is against this backdrop that his rise as a short-term politician to put in place a long-term vision must be seen.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist and writer. He can be contacted at contct@mayankchhaya.com)


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