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The Guns of Manmohan 
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Illustration: Jairaj T.G.

You think you've been getting away with it all this time, standing by? Well, son, your bystanding days are over! You're in it now, up to your neck!”
Captain Mallory (played by Gregory Peck) had a pistol in hand when he uttered these words to the constantly grumbling Corporal Miller (David Niven) in that all-time favourite The Guns of Navarone.
Manmohan, a much milder man than Mallory, and minus the pistol, said much the same thing to his team two weeks ago. He called all 77 of them in his council of ministers, several of them behaving like Millers, gave them tea and quietly told them that they were all in it with him, up to their bare or bejewelled necks. “...In the time that is available to us, each one of you will bring your best efforts to complete the unfinished task before us,” he told them.
A cabinet sails (some say, swims) and sinks together. But many mantris in Manmohan's government, and tantris (strategists) in Sonia's party, used to think that they could sail with him, yet escape that sinking feeling whenever it occurred. If the UPA ship manages to sail on, many thought, it would be because Sonia or Rahul would steer it through the storms and the whirlpools, the Scyllas and Charybdises, the Modis and the Gadkaris. If it sinks, blame it on the heavy ballast of the PM's economic policies.
Alec Douglas-Home said he faced two kinds of problems during his one-year prime ministership of Britain in 1963-64—the political ones which were insoluble and the economic ones which were incomprehensible. Manmohan has been luckier. He has ruled eight years because the economic problems were comprehensible to himself, and he had Pranab Mukherjee to solve his political problems. Pranab had been the UPA's guide, philosopher, talker, fixer, sheet-anchor and steadying force in the middle of political storms.
Now Pranab has gone over the hill, Raisina Hill, and skipper Manmohan is on his own. He hasn't been a political animal, and there is no one in the cabinet with the kind of political gravitas that Pranab had. Save A.K. Antony, but he is too much of a gentleman.
Pranab's exit, perhaps, has done the PM good. Steadying forces, like sheet-anchors to a ship, could also be inhibiting, especially when a captain wants to lift and sail. Manmohan is in a mood to lift and sail with the reform wind.
The Rahul hope has been dimming. The party tantris had all along thought that things would drift for a while and then Rahul would take over and steer the ship home. But Rahul seems to have dropped his steering compass in the Ganges.
Necessity is the mother of invention, also discovery. The helplessness has made Manmohan discover a bit of political animal spirit in himself. Last heard, he was hosting Mayawati and Mulayam separately to lunch, trying to get them to vote with him against the opposition's proposed winter session motions. Politics makes strange lunch-fellows.
Sonia is in sync. “No need for the Congress to be on the defensive,” she declared at the Ramlila rally early this month. A week later at Surajkund Manmohan got his mantris explain sarkari policies to the tantris. Next Sonia is planning a brainstorming session, like Indira's Narora (1973), and her own Panchmarhi (1998) and Shimla (2004), to crack a few hard Congress nuts.
Tailpiece: Manmohan had indulged in secret alliance talks earlier. In 1998, as emissaries of Sonia, he and Arjun Singh had a secret rendezvous with Kanshi Ram in a south Delhi house, where Arjun is said to have arrived with his head covered with a towel. Kanshi Ram made them wait for half an hour which put off Arjun. The patient Manmohan did the talking, which resulted in a winning alliance with the BSP for the Assembly polls in MP, Rajasthan and Delhi.
prasannan@the-week.com

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