New Delhi: For a prime minister to succeed, political confidence is a must. Confidence does not come from possession of foreign degrees or being born in a dynasty. Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav are two prime cases, one operating in the shadow of his mother, and the other imprisoned by his father’s backwardness.

Nor does political confidence come from being a long-time second-in-command or having secure lodgings in the establishment. Lal Krishna Advani simply did not have the chutzpah to be prime minister and so pushed the case of Atal Behari Vajpayee. As Union home minister, he was mediocre. Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India who accepted that portfolio with great reluctance showed more promise. And when Advani thought himself ready for the corner office in South Block, kismet deserted him.

And political confidence certainly cannot be gained by spending your life in the Rajya Sabha. Pranab Mukherjee did make amends near the end of his active political career and election to the Lok Sabha made him a strong contender for the prime-ministership which 10 Janpath denied him. It is political confidence again that plunged him into the fierce battle for the presidency and he nearly forced Sonia Gandhi to back him for Rashtrapati Bhawan. The manner he sewed up support for himself across the political spectrum exhibited his tremendous derring-do.

Consider the contrasting Manmohan Singh. It was his tenth Red Fort Independence Day appearance, and he permitted Narendra Modi positioned in a western corner of the country to steal his thunder. Manmohan Singh like Pranab has spent long years in the Rajya Sabha but Mukherjee at least had the understanding that to be taken seriously, popular election is a sine qua non.

Manmohan Singh lost the only contested Lok Sabha election in 1999 and never fought again. Because he lost political confidence, Sonia Gandhi chose him as prime minister. He became her puppet. But you cannot be a puppet prime minister with no personal confidence and still expect to perform brilliantly.

This is where both P.V.Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee scored. Few people know that Rao had a tough but purposive stint as Andhra Pradesh chief minister in the early 1970s. He was near retirement when offered the prime-ministership in 1991. Almost one of his first tasks was to consolidate his position vis-a-vis dissidents such as Arjun Singh and slowly but steadily diminish the influence of 10 Janpath. It is from an unassailable position that he gave the go-ahead for reforms to Manmohan Singh and stabilized the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. What made him power ahead? His confidence. Manmohan Singh had a good chance to learn from his boss but did not.

Vajpayee did, studying up close his informal “Saturday Club” friend, Narasimha Rao. Both men had vision which they took care to nurture till the big opportunity arrived. But Vajpayee’s confidence also stemmed from his nearly unbroken electoral victories. And ultimately, such confidence made him invest in things he believed to be necessary, such as reforms, which succeeded, and peace with Pakistan and China, which did not. It is also his confidence that pushed him to approve the 1998 nuclear test and declare India a weapons’ power.

From Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shashtri and Indira Gandhi to Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee, political confidence determined their successes. Nehru failed in one war (1962) and lost Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 1947-48 but his founding vision for India and its by and large sound application came from his confidence. Indira Gandhi, all told, was the most successful Indian prime minister, and she never lacked confidence. If someone can be said to be her political legatee, it is unquestionably Narendra Modi. It is Modi’s political confidence that emboldened him to challenge the establishment and shred the orthodoxies surrounding the Independence Day anniversary. And he has emerged victorious.

As Lord Tennyson wrote:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to the new,

And God fulfils himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Speaking of corrupt customs, the rupee fell to a new low today (62 to a dollar) and the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensex tumbled 769 points partly on account of capital controls imposed by the Reserve Bank. Is there something intrinsically wrong with the Indian economy? No. The markets have no confidence in the Manmohan Singh government. And that plummeting confidence has spooked domestic and foreign investments, destroyed the business climate, and pushed the country into a vicious stagflation trap.

Unless political confidence returns, it is downhill for India. Manmohan Singh is not the prime minister that this country or even the world wants any longer. Till he goes, every moment will be agony.