So the time has come to write the political obituary of one of India’s most enigmatic Prime Ministers. In the words of Roger Erbert, Manmahon Singh is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He is a one-time financial wizard now sunk into a somnolent C If he once had dreams of leaving behind an enduring legacy, he has long since abandoned them. Having enjoyed a decade of pomp and privilege associated with the position of Prime Minister, he now seems content to retire into comfortable obscurity.
In his heyday in the early 1990s, Manmohan Singh was regarded as something of a magician who almost completely transformed the lives of ordinary Indians, particularly those residing in cities and towns. Indians in their thirties and younger probably have no concept of what conditions were like for the previous generation. Nehruvian socialism had a stranglehold on not just the economy, but every aspect of daily life. Forget about the nation’s horrendous balance of payment deficit. India was a backwoods country where people drove just two models of cars which had long become obsolete in the rest of the world; and even for those clunkers there was a year long waiting list. It took months to get a telephone or electricity connection. Foreign brands were unattainable luxuries and worth their weight in gold. As Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao government, Singh junked Nehru’s policies and opened up India to the rest of the world. It was a bold and revolutionary move by a Congressman, but the Dynasty had to grin and bear it because there was no alternative. Capitalism, which had hitherto been a bad word, became acceptable. Indians perceived its benefits and embraced it wholeheartedly.
I believe Manmohan Singh’s decline began when was appointed as Prime Minister. Singh is essentially a career bureaucrat reluctantly thrust into politics. When Sonia Gandhi magnanimously “sacrificed” the PM gaddi , she probably thought that Singh was a safe bet who could be relied to toe the Dynasty’s line and not get ideas above his station. She proved to be absolutely right. As Finance Minister and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Singh was in a milieu he was comfortable with. He had to deal mainly with others who spoke his language and that brought out the best in him. Singh has always been uncomfortable with confrontation even with satraps of his own party, let alone the Opposition.
Being PM was a novel experience for him, and he started out tentatively. He soon discovered however, that the job wasn’t too bad after all. State visits where important world leaders ostensibly treated him as an equal; one on one meetings with American Presidents who showered praise on him; these were very gratifying. He also discovered that as long as he implicitly obeyed the diktats of the high command; and turned a blind eye to what his Ministers were doing, he could avoid the confrontation he found so abhorrent. He also mastered the technique of countering uncomfortable questions with an enigmatic smile, or appearing in the public eye as seldom as possible. He was aware of the public perception that Sonia Gandhi was the power behind the throne; and that suited him just fine. As long as he was perceived to be not directly responsible for acts of commission and omission of his government, he could not be blamed either. His method of dealing with troublesome coalition ministers who did their own thing – notably, lining their pockets – and openly disdained his leadership was simple. He did not confront them or try to control them: he simply ignored them. He was a statesman after all. He could leave the dirty business of politics to those that revelled in it.
My take is that Manmohan Singh regarded his Prime Ministership as a post-retirement sinecure. He made up his mind at the outset to enjoy the pomp and pageantry the job provided, particularly the state visits where he could expound his world vision and be treated like an elder statesman. Even though he sincerely believed in parliamentary democracy, he considered himself above the maelstrom of Indian politics; and criticism just washed over him like water off a duck’s back. Even allowing for his limitations, one expected him to at least take charge of the economy, his forte; and this was the one failure the people could not forgive him for. To be fair to Singh however, he was never allowed a free hand. Sonia Gandhi and her profligate National Advisory Council (NAC) called the shots. The NAC, explicitly supported by the Empress, was big on idealism but severely lacking in practicality. They simply proposed and left the finance part to others. Incidentally, I believe Sonia Gandhi’s heart genuinely bleeds for India’s poor, but she is too financially unsophisticated to be aware of the consequences of her largesse. Inevitably, Manmohan Singh was left holding the bag. One can almost feel sorry for him; though not quite.
And so, as Manmohan Singh rides off into the sunset, we wish him a not so fond farewell. Our next Prime Minister is going to be diametrically opposite; decisive, authoritarian and determined to ram through his agenda. It sounds ideal, but it may well turn out to be too much of a good thing. Remember Indira Gandhi. Time will tell.