The return of Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh’s proactive participation in the GST meeting might have stumped his critics who have long derided him as a front for Gandhi family.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with former prime minister Manmohan Singh (centre) and Congress president Sonia Gandhi during a meeting in New Delhi on Friday.

New Delhi: “Do we want the GST (goods and services tax)? Are we ready to compromise on GST? Are we ready to talk on GST? Absolutely. Are we going to accept just being thrown aside? No.” Those were the words Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi used just last week as he stood in front of a hall full of college students in Bengaluru to criticize the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for not reaching out to the opposition.

The winter session of Parliament was looming and the threat of the GST Bill being derailed once again hung over it. The government perhaps realized that it was time to extend the olive branch and within 48 hours of the Bengaluru speech, a meeting was announced between Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The leaders met on 27 November with cabinet ministers Arun Jaitley and M. Venkaiah Naidu in attendance.

Photographs show the five leaders with serious faces, sitting stiffly, in slightly defensive postures, but the meeting by all accounts was “constructive”. No one is holding their breath for a smooth winter session, but there might just be a glimmer of hope for the clearing of important bills.

And surprisingly the credit for this goes not to Rahul Gandhi’s grandstanding, but former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who reportedly set up the meeting between Sonia Gandhi and Modi after the prime minister reached out to him.

According to a report in The Economic Times, Singh took an active part in the discussions that took place at Modi’s residence. Modi said Singh should feel free to call him to discuss issues that “need our serious consideration”.

Singh’s proactive participation might have stumped his critics who have long derided him as a front for the Gandhi family. Even though the former prime minister remains one of the most respected names in Indian politics, his tenure will be remembered for the number of corruption scandals that erupted in the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) second spell in power.

Even in the hot seat, Singh flexed his political muscles only rarely, the most notable example being the push he made for the India-US civil nuclear deal in 2007—in the UPA’s first term—in the face of stiff opposition from the communist parties, coalition partners of the UPA. The nuclear deal was the result of Singh’s interaction and rapport with the then US President George W. Bush.

So what could have prompted this fresh involvement? Could India be looking at a new avatar of the former prime minister—that of the elder statesman?

“It (the GST Bill) is an issue that needs an economist and Singh is very well qualified (to play mediator),” said Balveer Arora, a political science professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. According to him, another person who understands the GST Bill well is former finance minister P.C. Chidambaram. “But Sonia Gandhi made her preference known years ago. And when it comes to negotiating with the NDA on this, who better than Singh.”

The GST Bill, which aims to unify markets across the country by replacing multiple and diverse state taxes with a uniform one, was drafted while the UPA was in power and is a crucial second generation reform India desperately needs. The passage of the bill has been held up due to specific demands by the Congress that includes scrapping a proposed 1% -state tax. During the meeting with Modi, news reports said, Gandhi was open to the points being put forth by the NDA leaders.

According to Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug, Singh understands the need for cross-party cooperation.

“He cut his political teeth in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government (as finance minister). The leader of opposition at that time was (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s) AB Vajpayee and it was the personal rapport between the two that made economic reforms smooth. Manmohan Singh definitely has that context.” Indeed, the Rao government was a minority one.

The peace talks are also an indication of the NDA’s realization that the politics of confrontation will not work. The defeat suffered by the party in the Bihar assembly elections, coupled with increasing criticism of its inability to get key legislation voted through, are probably the main reasons that led Modi to invite the Congress leaders home for tea.

The NDA swept to power in 2014 on the promise of economic growth and prosperity but now finds itself embroiled in controversies over intolerance and majoritarianism. “The development agenda has been hijacked by the extreme elements within the BJP and the opposition is also not playing a constructive role. GST being stuck in parliament is just an example of how overall progress is being hampered. If Singh can help bridge the gap, it will be significant,” said Amitabh Kundu, an economics professor at JNU.

Singh’s role in bringing about a meeting between the two most powerful political leaders in the country should not be under-estimated but experts also warned against reading too much into it. It does not necessarily signal a change in the political attitude of Singh, they said.

Mrug said the former prime minister’s move needs to be seen through the lens of pragmatism. “In an inter-dependent system, the opposition too needs a rapport with the government.” His reference was to the court summons served on Singh over alleged irregularities in coal block allocations. The summons resulted in Sonia Gandhi leading a solidarity march of Congress party leaders in support of Singh in March this year.



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