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Let’s ask why our former PM let Congress undermine his authority and that of his office

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Shekhar Gupta asks why former PM Manmohan Singh let Congress undermine his authority and that of his office.

In his first conversation with Pervez Musharraf, Manmohan Singh gave the general a professorial tutorial on exercise of state power. You and I are both accidental leaders of our nations, he said. We were not expected to reach where we have. Which Musharraf could have disputed, as anybody who gets commission as an officer in Pakistan’s army knows he is a candidate for the top office, and we don’t know if he did. But, to get back to serious stuff, the professor told the general that holding public office is like public trust. You can’t have it, and do nothing with it. His point, therefore, was, let’s get a move on with the peace process, whatever our respective political capital. How close the two coincidental, if not accidental, leaders got to an agreement has now been revealed quite authoritatively, and notably, by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri. For more details, wait for his forthcoming book.

It’s a question I wish Singh had asked himself at various points in his second term when his party, 10 Janpath and its commissars persistently destroyed his authority. They ruined his name and legacy, and diminished the prime minister’s office so much that a disgusted electorate turned to Narendra Modi for his promise of an all-powerful PMO, Gujarat style. But while there is no alibi for his in-house tormentors, I wonder if he sometimes also repeated to himself the line he had spoken to Musharraf. If he actually believed public office was public trust, did he do enough to justify it in his second innings? Or did he fail the test he had himself set for national leaders?

Let me first get disclosures and disclaimers out of the way. I was an admirer of Singh, and continue to be one. He gave me the gift of time and trust that we journalists value. In my own writings and in the newspaper I then edited, his economic and foreign policies, particularly the nuclear deal, found robust support. In his quiet power struggle with the party I weighed in on his side, believing that only he, among top Congress leaders, had the combination of intellectual, moral and TINA (There Is No Alternative) clout to save us from a return to rotten povertarian socialism.

Since I am old-fashioned and do not accept the new “norms” where off-record conversations are revealed, confidences not kept and sources betrayed, and with self-righteousness, I will not reveal whatever he may have shared with me during our many conversations. But I will reveal one point I once made to him, cheekily, saying that history will blame him for many things, but give him no credit for the bad things he saved us from in a political set-up where awful new ideas floated twice a week. He shrugged me off then, with disapproval. But now, as he prepares to go to court, accused of corruption and criminal breach of trust, he will reflect on the amount of time, energy and political capital he lost fighting these bad ideas, stalling or diluting them to minimise the damage, as with NREGA, Right to Education and Food Bills. On land acquisition, he lost out fully as Rahul had been convinced by his Kautilyas this was his party’s ticket to a third term.

In these five years there were many junctures when he could have drawn the line. The first blow was his party repudiating the agreement he reached with his Pakistani counterpart at Sharm el-Sheikh to resume the dialogue process suspended after 26/11. It was the first time in our history that a party had vetoed its own prime minister on a key foreign policy issue, and in public. He fretted to close aides over his environment minister writing letters to him on controversial issues taking a line at variance with his, and leaking them so he would “read them in newspapers” first. His do-nothing defence minister wouldn’t listen to him, not moving on purchases, slowing progress, including joint exercises with the US, and once most notably in early 2012 invoking “higher-ups” to veto a decision so important for national security it could have only been the prime minister’s and Cabinet Committee on Security’s.

His party’s old ideologies came back to blight him on economics as well as foreign policy. Through these 10 years, there was hardly any top-level exchange with Israel, although it continued to be akey strategic ally in those years. In the aftermath of 26/11, P. Chidambaram was forced to cancel US and Israel visits for fear of “political implications” (read Muslim vote). And as worries grew with the economic slowdown, not only did Pranab Mukherjee, the Last Statist, refuse to listen to him on the retrospective tax, he even dismissed his plea that the RBI governor (then D. Subbarao) be nudged to cut rates. You ask him, you gave him a two-year extension, not I, he is believed to have said in the presence of a couple of senior economic officials before walking off.

Sonia and her advisers started the practice of writing letters to him on populist issues and making them public. This had a twin objective: to give the Family credit for all “pro-poor” policies and to distance them from anything vaguely risky or reformist. He wasn’t allowed to pick his people in the PMO, forced to drop his loyal media adviser, and while it is simplistic to say that files were taken to Sonia, key decisions, even bureaucratic appointments, were cleared with her. Lutyens’ Zone is brutal, like the core of any capital city. Once it figures where the power rests, the rest don’t matter, whatever their designations.

His admirers, including this columnist, watched his frustration as he allowed himself to diminish in moral stature and political authority, becoming the butt of nasty jokes.

When Rahul tore up in public that corruption ordinance while Singh was overseas, we had hoped that this was enough humiliation. But he disappointed his admirers, who watched in frustration as he declined, going into silences, refusing to say anything in public on key issues as if in a sulk or self-pity. And I can promise you that he is not inarticulate. Far from it. His last televised full interview was with me, in the run-up to the 2004 elections, and he spoke with passion, intellect and conviction. He was no ‘Maun Mohan’. In his first term, he showed flashes of it, as on the nuclear deal. In the second, he was on a maun vrat, undermining himself, his government and his party.

Why did he give up his moral and constitutional authority without a fight? He confessed often that he was an appointed prime minister, not an elected one. But then why did he not insist that he contest for Lok Sabha, particularly in 2009? I think his party bosses were quite happy to see him that way, a bureaucrat-like, compliant prime minister serving at their sufferance. But if he had insisted that to have real authority he had to be in the House of the People, his party would have been compelled to give him a safe seat, much as it may have preferred to keep him a bonsai.

It is useful to look at what the scholar Moises Naim, currently at Carnegie and formerly editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, says in his book The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be. The world over, he says, “power no longer buys as much as it used to”, power is eroding. It is easier to get, but harder to use and easy to lose. Further, with 24-hour TV, social media and the tyranny of real time, “power players now often pay a steeper and more immediate price for their mistakes”. Flush with its victory on the nuclear deal, the UPA won its second, much larger mandate in 2009. Then began the spiral of mistakes, compounded by Singh retreating without a fight. His power, authority and political capital now were lost rapidly, as Naim explains. By 2010 he was a lame duck. Unless the terms of engagement were changed to restore his basic authority, he should have threatened to quit. My belief is Sonia and Rahul would have relented. They were not about to trust Pranab with the job. That he chose not to do so is the real disappointment and it is worth exploring why.

J.N. “Mani” Dixit was his first pick as national security adviser. He never tired of telling me that he had served with every PM in India’s history and that Manmohan Singh was the most selfless of all. Dixit passed away, sadly, early in his tenure or we would have had the benefit of his insights as to why Singh did not stand up for his office. As we watch the tragedy of our most self-effacing, clean and intellectual prime minister walking in and out of the courtroom, we have to ask him a rough question: did he himself flunk the test he had set for Musharraf? If he treated public office as public trust, he wouldn’t have let it be undermined. If he didn’t, did he then put his feudal loyalties-to the Family-above that public trust? Did he think he must not embarrass the Family, whatever the cost to me and my office? He probably did. And though not even his worst enemies would believe the court will finally find anything on him, and I still think history will judge him more kindly than journalism, he will also be remembered as a great leader and patriot who denied himself real greatness by putting his feudal loyalty above the diktat of public trust.

This article was originally published in 2015.

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  1. It is this type of June who are instigating interpretations and conclusions highly detrimental to social thinking on any particular issue.The ex PM clearly declared that there was no remote control as he has an independent mind unlike some jurnos who mislead the people.

  2. What can you expect much better write up from a senior journalist from IToday, who are anti bjp to the core! & theprint is publishing such a nonsense journal

  3. Ten years as PM, the first personage outside the Nehru – Gandhi family to attain that distinction, may have been too great a temptation to resist. The offer to become President was reportedly made to him in 2012, but he declined. That was the right time to change horses, induct Shri Pranab Mukherjee to the top job. By then, the skies had begun to darken. Pranabda would have stemmed the hemmorhage. Not sufficiently to assure a third term, but to have the sort of loss Ms Raje suffered, denying the victor a sense of grandeur and invincibility. 2. I think, within his constraints, Dr Singh could have achieved more. On economic reforms, although the Left, helmed by the rigid, doctrinaire Prakash Karat, was a boulder on the path, he could have carried mother and son a little more. On some of the allies going rogue, too, he could have cautioned the Gandhis. A Prime Minister who is not enriching his family or preparing them to succeed him has a lot of moral force and real authority. Being a Rajya – not a Lok – Sabha member was no big deal because he never claimed to be a power centre. There must be many moments when Dr Singh looks back to that decade with a sense that he could have done some things differently.

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