A Prime Minister Who Refused
to Stand Up to be Counted - Part I
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: – Act V: Tragedy of Othello: Shakespeare
The true narrative of what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did and what he failed to do, will emerge only after the dust inevitably stirred in evaluating contemporary events, settles down. Nonetheless, the ever-handy adjective great, will, I reckon, stick to his name. He will, indeed, go down in history as a great time-server, a great favorite of Lady Luck, a great political lame duck and, above all, a great fiasco as Prime Minster. In case of Manmohan Singh, as the Bard put it, greatness was thrust upon unwilling shoulders.
Lady Luck’s Favorite
Manmohan Singh was a favorite of Dame Luck. And not in one fell go – as for example in case of Rajiv Gandhi succeeding a slain Indira Gandhi – but (which is rare) in two installments.
The first time it was when he was appointed as Finance Minister by Narasimha Rao in 1991 and then as Prime Minister in 2004 after Sonia Gandhi’s heeded the call of her Catholic conscience and decided to hand over the reins of office to Manmohan Singh – politically, the most harmless and therefore (as Americans say) the most available candidate for the post.
Take, first, his appointment as Finance Minister. After Independence in 1947, India adopted Nehruite socialist policies. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on taking over after Indira Gandhi’s assassination dared to break the socialist straightjacket and initiated some reforms. However, in 1991, when Narasimha Rao took over the reins after Rajiv’s killing, the country had a bankrupt treasury and faced an unprecedented balance of payment crisis. That this desperate situation was the result of half a century’s socialist economic policies and, more importantly, Rajiv Gandhi’s own reckless imports to catapult India into the 21st century some two decades ahead of the calendar. (We as a nation have a knack of either lagging far too behind time or forging far too ahead.) We had to mortgage 67 tons of gold to that rapacious international bania called the International Monetary Fund as part of a bailout deal, and acquiesce into the economic restructuring dictated by it.
A desperate Prime Minister turned to a time-tested seasoned economist – a veteran of fourteen budgets and a reputed administrator – I G Patel. He asked him to take over as Finance Minister to bail the country out. Patel, who had just retired as Director, London School of Economics, declined Rao’s offer and told him he wanted to call it a day. (Wasn’t it a rare gesture on part of a civil servant whose tribe bends backwards to serve the country till their last breath in some capacity or another so that the funeral is on the State?) Pressed by Rao, to suggest someone else, Patel recommended Manmohan Singh.
“But isn’t he another dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian Socialist?” Rao must have riposted. Patel assured him that the real economists are amenable to any political orientation: just give them a brief and they know how to build a convincing case. Manmohan Singh was recovering from a bypass surgery. He was awakened from sleep by a telephone call from Prime Minister Rao, offering him the finance portfolio in his cabinet. The rest, as they say, is history.
Again, in 2004, Sonia Gandhi planning to stake her claim for Prime Ministership of UPA government, realized how very deep and wide-spread was the popular resentment on her heading the Government. Her darling son was not ready for the political arena. (That he isn’t even now is another story.) Hence, her search for someone to hold the fort and yet step aside when commandeered to do so. Her choice finally zeroed on Manmohan Singh who, besides being a real political light weight, had built a reputation of absolute reliability. So on May 22, 2004 Manmohan Singh, to the utter surprise of many, was sworn in as the thirteenth Prime Minister of the Republic. Indeed, a unique case of a most unexpected dark horse winning the country’s grand political Derby.
Served Seven Prime Ministers.
Was it all that a surprise or a replay of well-rehearsed script? A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “The Man Who Served Seven Kings: The Rise and Rise of Manmohan Singh”. It is well-known how in the fabled durbars of Delhi, rulers came and rulers went, but the courtiers stayed on. That’s because they’re supposed to be nimble-footed, know when and how to shift their loyalty to the powers-that-be and, above all, never fail to give the advice the ruler of the day wants to hear.
In our checkered medieval history when rulers changed fairly frequently, the art of shifting loyalty was assiduously cultivated by the couriers. The past master in that craft was Amir Khusro, the legendary poet, composer, inventor, linguist, historian, scholar and, above all, as a long-enduring courtier. In 1260, Khusro arrived in Delhi and managed to get his first job in the court of Mamluk Sutans. Thereafter, there was no looking back. He continued as a courtier during the reigns of one Mamluk ruler after another, and they came and went in fairly quick succession.
Manmohan Singh has many an endearing attribute in common with Hazrat Amir Khusro. Like Khusro, Manmohan Singh too dutifully served seven rulers before he found himself catapulted by a unique twist of events.
He served seven Prime Ministers to the very best of his abilities: Indira Gandhi (in both her incarnations, namely, before and after the Emergency), Morarji Desai, Choudhary Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and then Narasimha Rao as Finance Minister.
Like Amir Khusro, Manmohan Singh is a great survivor of our times. In the post-Nehruvian phase of our politics, Prime Ministers have come and gone, ideological ground shifted – or at least appears to have been – but he managed to keep himself entrenched in important positions as part of the governments’ core group on economic policies for good two decades. He managed – isn’t ‘maneuvered’ more appropriate? – to work with almost every Indian Prime Minister after Nehru, as part of each government’s core group on economic policies. And finally, the dimple-cheeked Dame Luck smiled on the Lame Duck. (You know whom am I referring to.)
He was, during the first phase of Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, Economic Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Trade (1971-72), Chief Economic Advisor, Ministry of Finance (1972-76), Director, Reserve Bank of India (1976-77). The economist-cum-amateur politician was equally eager to serve Morarji Desai and – hold your breath – Choudhary Charan Singh. (Party labels didn’t matter to him.) His motto, like Khusro’s, was: serve-well-whosoever-is-in-power.
He was Director, Reserve Bank of India (1977-80) Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Department of Economic Affairs (1977-1980).
When Indira Gandhi bounced back to power in January 1980, he once again, as the most versatile civil servant, offered his services. He was Member Secretary, Planning Commission (1980 -1982), Governor, Reserve Bank of India (1982 1984); and Member, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (1983-84).
After Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins on his mother’s assassination, Manmohan Singh was again too ready to help the new Prime Minister. He was Governor, Reserve Bank of India (1984-1985), Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission (1985-1987) and Secretary General, South Commission, Geneva (1987-90).
Manmohn Singh indeed was A Man for All Seasons. He was no novice in the corridors of Delhi when he took over as Prime Minister. Khusro might have served seven kings but he couldn’t ever dream of ascending the Delhi throne. Manmohan Singh did. A rare feat indeed!
Wanted to be Doctor
Self-declaredly, Singh is a most unlikely politician. That he reached the top that politicians crave for is another matter altogether. He once told the media that he wanted to study medicine. Loss of medicine turned out to be the gain of the dismal science called economics.
He says he was deeply influenced reading Minoo Masani’s Our India. Who wasn’t? He opted for economics to find out why India is poor. Masani, however, knew the cause: our failure to generate wealth and then distribute it as equitably as possible. And let’s not forget that Masani alone, along with the solitary exception of Prof A D Shroff (remember his Forum of Free Enterprise?) remained maverick critics of socialist planning as a means of wealth generation. All others who mattered, including Manmohan Singh, remained steadfast followers of the socialist path till everyone discovered it to be a cul-de-sac.
Way back in the 1960’s, it used to be said that apart from jute and tea, economists were our staple exports. Our economy was kept insulated from the rest of the world, but our economists gained international recognition abroad. South Koreans or Malaysians or Japanese couldn’t dream of a Nobel Prize in Economics but they had the consolation of seeing their countries grow at impressive rates while we were stuck with the 3.5 per cent “Hindu” rate of growth. Wasn’t it an unpardonable lapse on the part of Prof Raj Krishna not to call this stagnant rate of growth as the Nehruvian rate of growth which it actually was?
In the Fifties, when P.C. Mahalonobis drafted the Soviet style Second Five Year Plan, A.D. Shroff responded by starting the Forum of Free Enterprise. In the 1960’s and 70’s the only economist of some standing who advocated integration of Indian economy with the global economy was a Gujarati – Jagdish Bhagwati. He was, of course vociferously opposed by an army of Marxists spearheaded by P.C. Mahalonobis.
Man of Integrity
Unlike most of his Cabinet colleagues who never touched a book after school if they went to one, Manmohan Singh keeps himself abreast with the latest. He has musical tastes too, listening especially to Gurbani and ghazals. Like most Punjabis of his generation he can, at the drop of a hat, recite a suitable Urdu shair appropriate to the occasion to embellish his argument. Iqbal is his favorite poet.
Manmohan Singh is an extremely poor communicator despite having been a teacher at Delhi School of Economics. He almost dreads questioning in his media encounters.
He is ever so often referred to as a man endowed not just with integrity but a special brand thereof, called unimpeachable integrity. I’ve often wondered – I’m sure you might as well have – why on earth has integrity to be preceded with an adjective? Is integrity by itself half-suspect? And the pompous adjective unimpeachable makes it acceptable. Perhaps it has something to do with what H W Fowler called the “fear of the naked noun.”
I believe the reason for the adjective unimpeachable being tagged on to the attribute called integrity, is, in all likelihood, linked to Warren Hastings’ trial by British Parliament for all his highly devious deeds as Company Bahadur’s chief in India. And there’s ample evidence that the man did line his deep pockets with gay abandon before returning home at the end of his term as the first Governor-General of India.
When he reached England, he was impeached in the House of Commons for crimes and misdemeanors during his time in India. Right from the beginning there were misgivings that the proceedings will succeed. But eminent MP’s like, Charles Fox and Richard Sheridan persisted. The House sat for 148 days over a period of seven years to complete the investigation. Though finally nothing was proved, the trial nearly bankrupted Hastings. Finally, the House of Lords acquitted him of all charges in April 1795.
So, India’s first Governor General goes down in history as a person of unimpeachable integrity which in his case merely means highly suspected, but unproven dishonesty. I only hope that’s not so in case of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh!
Integrity, I reckon, is more a matter of perception (of others) rather than an attribute with iron-clad proof thereof. When we say so-and-so is a man of integrity we don’t say he has been tried on charges of corruption but the charges couldn’t be established in a court of law. We call him a man of integrity because he is generally perceived to be above board.
Also, thanks to our corrupt politicians, we tend to over-emphasize the importance of integrity in our scale of values. Integrity to be a meaningful attribute of a person’s character traits must be accompanied by other skills.
In case of a leader of men, the best definition of integrity I’ve seen is the one offered by Stephen Covey: “honestly matching words and feelings with thoughts and actions, with no desire other than for the good of others, without malice or desire to deceive, take advantage, manipulate, or control, constantly reviewing your intent as you strive to for congruence.”
In our society, integrity has come to mean not making money while holding a position of authority, which offers opportunities to accumulate wealth. But that’s not enough. Leaders show integrity when their actions and their value system are integrated. More importantly, they show it through the moral authority they bring to bear on others around them by ensuring, in case of others under their influence, such an integration of profession and practice. This, alas, did not happen in case of Manmohan Singh.
This simple one-pointed emphasis on integrity standing for not making money on the quiet when one could have is rooted in our past history of being ruled by conquerors of this land. While the rulers and their lackeys around them accumulated wealth for themselves the common people thought very high of those who desisted from such a temptation. Indeed, to that extent Manmohan Singh had integrity but certainly not in the broader sense as defined above. Personally, he remained honest but overlooked his Cabinet colleagues loot the treasury uninhibitedly.
To be Continued