In conventional terms, the UPA’s two stints are cited as a period of decline of the prime minister’s office. But in reality, they have corrected the PM’s role, given that under the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy, he is only the first among equals — primus inter pares. Herein, MMS has played this role with such precision and perfection, even staying silent on the many major issues where he could easily have overplayed his hand by speaking out and thus going beyond his remit. In ensuring that his job is only to head the government, allocate portfolios, hold cabinet meetings, use his casting vote when required, and allow the rest of the government to run by itself — he has rid himself of the trappings of power, indeed the very dialectic between power and position.
Part of the success of this bravura performance lies in the fact that it has been totally at odds with the presidential -even monarchical—style as espoused by the principal Opposition party, which wants a strongman with strong-arm tactics, whereby a PM must be “a leader of the government and a leader of the people”. MMS, in contrast, stays true to the precept of naishkarmya, or the Gita doctrine of pure awareness without being involved. He may be undertaking action — but he does not verily act. He heads the government, but he does not lead it. Indeed, he does not want to.
This takes one to the second major re-write of accepted role play in the Indian political system: MMS’ equation with Mrs Gandhi, the chairperson of the UPA. Far from being derided as someone who is merely a vehicle to do 10 Janpath’s bidding or a puppet on a string, MMS’s style has been perfectly pitched -low key, nuanced, distanced…passing on the credit and taking the blame. Yet, MMS is not seen as a rubber stamp or a yes man — but more like the academician that he really is, who administers like the bureaucrat that he became, yet with just the mask of the politician that he has to wear.
MMS has played each of these three roles for 20 years each with competence and dignity -but in this third, and perhaps final act, he will be especially applauded for his self-effacement, for his removal of ego -and the example it holds for anyone who aspires for office. MMS did not get the job because he wanted it. MMS got the job because he did not want it, even as he had all the perfect attributes for it. His track record has proved this right, because like a cultist, he was prepared to first, sacrifice his ego, and then, sacrifice his self for a cause –whether right or wrong. In the best traditions of Japanese ritual suicide, seppuku, or self-disembowelment, is the supreme sacrifice for a higher cause. In the cut and thrust of the GOP, there is no blood and gore, but to take the blame when things go wrong -and to absorb the insults thereafter with an unruffled mein.
The recent ordinance issue is a good example—after all, it was the GOP which pushed it, and Union Cabinet which processed it, while MMS merely saw that it went through. But when it went wrong and Rahul Gandhi corrected it by a coldly clinical command(o) performance in a necessary power projection so as to usurp the moral high horse-incidentally surprising an unsuspecting media in their own backyard! – MMS was in the perfect position to take the blowback. Soon after, he had to absorb a barb –a peculiarly paternalistic narrative where being a woman is equated with weakness— from the very man he wanted to make peace with.
Both the so-called “humiliation” at home and “insult” from abroad, were loudly spun by the openly ambitious prime ministerial aspirant, Narendra Modi, into the exact antithesis of the narrative described above – that Rahul’s intervention diminished the PM’s “leadership” (” pagri ucchal di”), that there must necessarily be a strongly muscular, masculine style, even that the idea of India is insulted by anything less.
But in all this noise, MMS is serene, even sentient. As the yogi described in the Ashtavakra Gita, he is “not in the least agitated even when scoffed and abused by servants, sons, wives, grandsons and relatives”. In fact, the emancipated one as described by Ashtavakra, “is neither pleased with eulogy nor enraged by dispraise. Nor is he agitated (by the fear of death) nor takes delight in life (due to his identification with the absolute Self)”. In fact, MMS, has lived the dictum that one’s true identity can be found simply by recognizing oneself as pure existence -and that since he never sought a position, he can never lose it.