Indian premier raises fists

Times Staff Writer

With his trademark blue turban, Clark Kent glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still looks like the earnest, unassuming, bookish economist he has been for most of his adult life.

His speeches bear the unmistakable ring of a lecture-hall drone, and his vision for the world’s most populous democracy would probably work best as a PowerPoint presentation.

So it was with some surprise last week that Indians caught a glimpse of what seemed like a different man, a normally mild-mannered, Oxford-educated technocrat suddenly in touch with his inner pugilist. Trying to salvage a landmark nuclear cooperation deal between India and the United States, Singh came out swinging.

He insisted that the deal was the right way forward. He waved aside objections from opponents on the left and the right like so much chaff. And, in a much-talked-about interview with the weekly newsmagazine India Today, he even accused his political enemies of praying for his death.

“Talking tough,” the magazine declared on its cover, below a photo of the 74-year-old Singh with his finger raised, as if wagging it at those who would disagree.


In part because of his new assertiveness, Singh’s government is facing its most serious crisis since coming to power three years ago.

The leader of a group of communist parties has warned Singh of “serious consequences” if he pushes ahead with the nuclear agreement. The deal would allow American companies to sell technology to India, which in exchange would open up its civilian reactors to international inspectors. Critics say the accord would make New Delhi too cozy with Washington.

The pact does not require approval from India’s Parliament. But if leftist lawmakers withdraw their support, they could force early elections. Whether the malcontents will go that far is hard to tell. Virtually no one, politicians or voters, relishes the idea of elections ahead of their expected cycle in 2009.

But as officials toil behind the scenes to reach a compromise, the communists have promised to keep the pressure on by mounting public protests against the accord.

Singh expressed hope that the deal would sweep past its current political troubles. “If winter is here, can spring be far behind?” he said, slightly misquoting the poet Shelley.

A communist leader retorted that the prime minister could be in for “a long nuclear winter.”

For now, many observers here are scratching their heads over Singh’s sudden burst of combativeness, wondering what inspired such a change in a self-effacing leader who has, up to now, been more apt to seek a quiet consensus.

“The tone of his remarks is very out of character with his public life since 1991,” the year Singh rose to national prominence as finance minister, said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. “I can’t think of another time when he was so outspoken on an issue.”

Some speculate that Singh simply lost patience with opposition to the deal, which was first suggested by President Bush two years ago and has been the subject of headlines ever since. Others see Singh’s tough stance as a shrewdly calculated move, a deliberate gambit to make the left blink on an issue in which public opinion appears to be in his favor. “There is a sense in which the P.M. is playing a strong hand,” analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express newspaper.

The question is whether it was Singh’s decision to take the gloves off. From the start of his tenure, he has frequently been dismissed as a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party and India’s most powerful woman.

After the face-off between Singh and the left escalated last week, Gandhi cut short a trip to South Africa and rushed back here, presumably to help craft a strategy to counter what may be stiffer opposition to the nuclear deal than the prime minister and his aides had anticipated.

Many Indians had expected the Italian-born Gandhi to become their leader after her party’s victory at the polls in 2004.

But in tearful public remarks, the widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi declined the post, possibly out of concern for her personal safety, and anointed Singh instead. By then, Singh had made his name as the architect of India’s free-market reforms, the economic unfettering that has led to the nation’s current boom.

Born under the British Raj in what is now Pakistan, Singh is India’s 14th prime minister since independence in 1947 and the first Sikh to hold the office. By all accounts, he is highly intelligent, modest and, to the admiration of voters fed up with rampant corruption, honest and frugal.

What he isn’t, some say, is a battle-hardened politician. Singh has never won a popular election. His membership in Parliament’s upper chamber, the politically weaker Rajya Sabha, or Council of States, is a result of selection by the legislature of the small northeastern state of Assam.

Even friends were surprised when Gandhi tapped him for the premiership.

“I didn’t believe it,” Singh told an interviewer. “When I asked some friends of mine, they said, ‘You are going to become the scapegoat. You’re going to fail and maybe within six months you will be out.’ ”

Three years later, his shock at landing the job seems to have been replaced by a belief that he was born for it. “I have faith in a higher force. I believe it was my destiny to be the prime minister,” he told India Today.

Yet by comparison with some of his opponents, said analyst Rangarajan, Singh is still a relative novice, which could be one explanation for his increasingly aggressive tone.

“One is that he’s politically inexperienced. The other is that he is confident he’ll come up trumps in this conflict,” Rangarajan said. “I’m not yet convinced the second is going to happen. It’s a big gamble.”

One person who knows Singh says that he always evinced a determination to see something through.

Gautam Ganguly, a local official who worked with Singh during the mid-1990s on implementing a number of development schemes in Guwahati, Assam’s capital, said he found the future prime minister to be “very humble, but at the same time non-compromising: no compromise on the quality of work, no compromise on any aspect.”

Singh “was very firm, absolutely clear in his approach,” Ganguly recalled in a telephone interview from southern Assam, where he is a district deputy commissioner. “And at the end of the day, he made a point to see that the schemes were completed.”

The stakes are inordinately higher with the nuclear accord. Singh’s personal credibility, his government’s viability and New Delhi’s improving relations with Washington are all, to some degree, on the line.