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Manmohan Singh: The patriot Congress undermined but now needs to restore party credibility

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On his 86th birthday, Manmohan Singh will be wryly amused by his party bosses’ rediscovery of him as a mascot of wisdom, intellect and integrity.

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 been revealed quite authoritatively, and notably, by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri in his book ‘Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove’.

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 Singh 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 professional 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, cynical, povertarian socialism.

Also read: What Manmohan got right but Sonia & Modi got wrong: Good economics defeats bad politics

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, on his 86th birthday, 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 MGNREGA, 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. Knowing Singh to be philosophical, I know that he will also be wryly amused by his party bosses’ rediscovery of him as a mascot of wisdom, intellect and integrity. He is the oracle his desperate party has resurrected to restore the political and moral credibility it destroyed itself.

In the five years of UPA-2 when he was dismantled, 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 his 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” before these reached him. 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 a key 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.

Also read: During 1984 riots, even Manmohan Singh’s family home was about to be burnt down

Sonia Gandhi 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.

Singh’s 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 Singh 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. Dixit 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 Singh’s 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 revival of the cult of Manmohan Singh, the wise, self-effacing, incorruptible reformer, 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 I still think history will judge him more kindly than 2010-14 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.

(A version of this article appeared in March 2015)

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  1. Yes. Why Singh chose not to ‘threaten to resign’ was indeed a big disappointment. Why was he so supine and malleable, even when his much vaunted ‘integrity’ was itself on the line? He had achieved already a LOT more than he set to do in life before he was pitchforked into the PM’s chair. He certainly had the intelligence, the knowledge and the foresight to envision where the 2G, Coalgate et al were heading, even if his controllers did not. But his meek submission then, and even now, coming out to voice whatever he is asked to support, are not only inexplicable, but probably a serious flaw. He would be much better off and admired refusing to ‘play’ politics of the kind that Congress is now playing..

  2. More evil than the truly evil, is the good man who does nothing, when he can. Which is why history will remember the man who abdicated India to the family, not the other.

  3. “Rahul had been convinced by his Kautilyas…”. Thanks for revealing this little nugget.

    Top cabinet ministers of UPA -2 have been fierce in their opposition during the current NDA regime, what with strongly worded tweets and op-eds! Then there are their books that keep coming out at regular intervals. Kautilya ji has written a couple on a subject that we know little about and which has lot of relevance for today – Indira Gandhi. Chidambaram ji writes book on how he is valiantly trying to uphold democracy, so does Sibal ji. Tharoor sir can churn out books faster than you can read them. But to organise people and lead agitation for demonitisation, farmers, jobless youth, well that is certainly not their job.

    It’s a travesty that people so unrooted in the realities of Indian life were pontificating on our policies. Not that the current regime is any better, but certainly good riddance to the wise men who belong in think tanks, not in cabinet.

    My respect for Dr. Manmohan Singh only grows when you realize the constraints under which he delivered.

  4. We are clearly mixing up “good men” or a “good bureaucrat” with “good leaders”. Reading the article it is clear that Dr.Singh definitely not the latter. It is rather unfortunate India had a government “led” by Dr.Singh for two terms, especially when the shots were called not by the PM. For India to be successful – economic, social and military – we need “good and strong leaders” backed up by peoples mandate.

  5. Very apt assessment Shekhar, honest and objective. I wish he resigned after the Rahul act, even his daughter wanted him to. History can’t be changed but I am sure the family would have been threatened too.
    History will judge him more kindly.

  6. It is possible Dr Singh did push the envelope on some issues, and was rebuffed. We all know he made a prestige issue of the civil nuclear deal and prevailed, almost risking a fragile government in the process. Only insiders would know for certain how much use he sought to make of the high office he held in trust. On issues involving serious graft – coal, spectrum – he was unduly timorous. Although not a professional politician, he could have conveyed to the family his own assessment of how much political damage these egregious acts of wrongdoing would cause. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was his unwillingness to make a stronger case for economic reform, both in the boom years leading up to 2008 and then the subsequent phase when high growth would have to be earned. At some stage, the ease and comfort of the status quo, the prospect of holding office for a decade seems to have lulled Dr Singh to feeling that perhaps others should do the worrying and the heavy lifting, he would merely keep the show going. To be fair and objective, the fall to 44 in 2014 could not have happened if he had played a better innings.

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