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ONE can understand the dismay, possibly even righteous anger, when the country’s prime minister is described in a leading British newspaper as ‘Sonia’s poodle’. Such phrases, after all, while often part of idle, drawing room chatter, are not commonly part of our formal political discourse. The British may find nothing unusual in former Prime Minister Blair being called President Bush’s poodle. But that is not the Indian tradition. Or so we like to posture. Never mind that Manmohan Singh has often been far more unsympathetically described in scores of Indian analyses. But, if others, more so our former colonial masters, seek to assume a familiarity that we grant to ourselves, then ‘it’s not quite cricket’.

The headline in The Independent, its appropriateness or otherwise, can be debated. But what explains the flurry of indignation generated by an article in Time magazine describing Manmohan Singh as an ‘underachiever’? More so, because the content of the article is commonplace. It is, after all, no state secret that the UPA-2 regime has been caught in a policy paralysis, unable to take decisions, pass legislation and so on. Nor is it news that the growth process has slowed down, that inflation levels remain stubbornly high, and that business confidence is at an all time low, facts routinely admitted by official spokespersons.

In part, the excited reactions to the Time magazine article reflects the lack of confidence we have in our own knowledge producing institutions and, as a corollary, the importance we grant to judgements by outsiders, particularly from the West. Their praise boosts our self-confidence; their criticism dampens it. But equally, the reactions and the ensuing debate captures the insecurity of our political elite, across parties.

Take the other recent episode that too created a minor flutter. Talking to the media, senior Congressman and Law Minister Salman Khurshid admitted that his party was facing a crisis of leadership. Its supreme leader, Sonia Gandhi, seems out-of-sorts, displaying none of the energies of her earlier days prior to the Congress/UPA assuming power in 2004. At that stage, overcoming her natural reluctance to be in the public gaze, she had worked hard to bring not only the leaders in her party but also potential allies on board to breathe life into a fledgling UPA. Little of that seems visible now.

Unfortunately for the Congress, the hopes invested in the leadership designed to take over, Rahul Gandhi, have yet to bear fruit. While the young Gandhi still enjoys a measure of goodwill, with most people believing that his heart is in the right place, his efforts to revitalize the party, including its youth wing, have failed to enthuse. Moreover, the disappointing results of his U.P. campaign, including in what are considered the pocket boroughs of Raebareli, Amethi and Sultanpur, have dispirited even diehard supporters and loyalists and considerably dimmed his sheen. Surely, after nearly two terms in Parliament, to claim potential and promise is no longer enough.

Salman Khurshid likened the young Gandhi’s role to a cameo performance, hoping that he would now assume a larger role in the party and provide it fresh direction. The current disarray in the party, and government, he traced to this unusually long process of waiting, a phase he hoped would soon come to an end. In itself, none of what Khurshid articulated is new, much less incendiary. Yet, so terrified is the Congress of any implied criticism of its leadership (read ruling family), that more than discuss the content of his analysis, the focus is firmly on the possible reasons why he said what he did. And worse publicly. This is not a party sure of itself, fearful about its future.

The problem, unfortunately, is not limited to the Congress alone. Every other party, national or regional, seems afflicted with a similar insecurity, a lack of self-confidence, relying more on errors by opponents than its own strength, such that even innocuous statements are invested with dangerous, destabilizing qualities. Even the Communists, normally seen as more organized and favouring informed debate, now display an alarming inability to accommodate dissent. So when a young CPI(M) leader and frequent spokesperson, Prasanjit Bose, disagreed with the party decision to support Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for the post of President, and resigned, the party leadership preferred instead to expel him, citing indiscipline.

If such is the state of our political leadership, should we be surprised that the country cannot come to a reasonable consensus on key policy questions? Or that the performance of the UPA-2 regime, under Manmohan Singh’s leadership, remains underwhelming. We do not need Time magazine to tell us that. A country and its leadership which, to quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘cannot take its own measure’, can hardly aspire to greatness.

Harsh Sethi