The Man Who Served Seven Kings

The Rise and Rise of Manmohan Singh

In my stars I am above thee;
but be not afraid of greatness:
some are born great,
some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon 'em
                                          - Malvolio in Shakespeare's
Twelfth Night

In the fabled royal durbars of Delhi, rulers come and rulers go, but the courtiers stay 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 courtiers. 

The past master in that craft was Amir Khusro, his considerable literary achievements notwithstanding.

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.
In 1290, defeating the last Mamluk ruler, Jalaluddin Feroz Khilji  usurped the coveted throne of Delhi. Khusro, as a clever courtier, swiftly hitched his loyalty to Khilji rulers. It goes to the credit of Khusro that amidst political somersaults he vigorously maintained his literary pursuits.
In 1295, Alauddin Khilji did what was common among rulers of the time i.e. kill the ruler and capture power. So, when his uncle, the King was embracing his nephew to facilitate him on his victories, Alauddin stabbed his uncle and declared himself as the Sultan of Delhi in 1296. Khusro later accompanied Khilji in his military campaigns in 1310 as the court chronicler. This is also the time when Khusro was deeply influenced by the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya.
On the death of Alauddin in 1315, Khusro again switched his loyalty to the new king Mubarak Khilji. In 1321, in the true style of Muslim rulers Mubarak Khilji too was murdered and Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq came to power. That is the time Khusro embarked on writing his Tughluqnama

The year 1325 is momentous indeed in medieval Indian history. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq came to power. Nizamuddin Auliya died, and six months later so did Khusro, the royal poet - prolific indeed, having been associated with the royal courts of more than seven rulers of the Delhi Sultanate - a man of  truly memorable multi-cultural,  pluralistic identity.
In Khusro’s Footsteps 
Manmohan Singh has many an endearing attribute in common with Hazrat Amir Khusro  the legendary poet, composer, inventor, linguist, historian, scholar and, above all, as a long-enduring courtier. Like Amir 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 Gandh’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 (1987-1989).

Great Indeed!
There isn’t much doubt in my mind that the adjective great will continue to stick to Manmohan Singh’s name—great time-server or Great Favourite of Dame Luck, or Great Lame Duck or Great Fiasco. This, history will decide. Meanwhile, let’s see how, as the Bard said, our hero had greatness thrust on him.
In case of Manmohan Singh greatness was thrust upon his unwilling shoulders not in one fell go—as for example in case of Rajiv Gandhi - but in two instalments: first his appointment as Finance Minister by Narasimha Rao in 1991 and then as Prime Minister in 2004 when Sonia Gandhi’s heeded her well-honed 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 and followed the Nehru’s socialist policies.  In the 1980s, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on taking over after Indira Gandhi’s assassination dared to initiate some reforms. However, in 1991, when Narasimha Rao took over the reigns 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 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 behind time or forging far too ahead.) We had to mortgage 67 tons of gold to the International Monetary Fund as part of a bailout deal, and acquiesce into the economic restructuring dictated to us.
A desperate Prime Minister turned to a seasoned economist—a veteran of fourteen budgets and a reputed administrator - I G Patel, to join him as Finance Minister to bail the country out. Patel, who had just retired as Director, London School of Economics, declined Rao’s offer.  It was a rare gesture on part of a civil servant whose community  itches to serve the country till their last breath so that the funeral too is on the State. Pressed by Rao to suggest someone else, Patel recommended Manmohan Singh. “But he is a dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian Socialist,” Rao must have asked.  Patel must have assured him that the real economists are amenable to any political orientation: just give them a brief and they know how to build the case. Recovering from a bypass heart surgery, Manmohan Singh plumbed for the job when the Rao offer arrived. The rest, as they say, is history.
Again, in 2004, Sonia Gandhi having staked her claim for Prime Ministership  realized instinctively that  there was very deep and wide-spread  popular  resistance to her being accepted an head of Government. Her darling son—the apple of her eyes, as the phrase goes –was too inexperienced to be thrown in the pit. Her search for someone to hold the fort and step aside when commanded to do so, 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 was sworn in as the thirteenth Prime Minister of the Republic. Indeed, a unique case of Dame Luck choosing a most unexpected  dark horse.
Khusro, as you’ve seen, served seven kings but couldn’t ever dream of ascending the throne. Manmohan Singh did. A rare feat indeed!
How would future judge him? I’ll attempt my assessment in the second installment. However, I’m sure the Congress Party’s own history won’t be so kind to his record. Like Narasimha Rao, he is destined to end as the fall guy simply because the Queen Dowager and her family can do no wrong. 

Related Article : Character of Dr. Manmohan Singh  


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3562      Comments: 6

Comment Wonderful comparison and Fantastic analysis! Dr Bali your English, style and incisive analytical mind are exceptional! Love to read more of your articles..and I am doing it...

G Swaminathan
27-Jul-2013 07:02 AM

Comment Excellent article by Mr. H.N. Bali

Reply to Mr. Vikram
The sin of Dr. Manmohan Siingh is that he allowed himself to be used like the great grand father Bhishma in epic Mahabaratha. (just to draw an anology- rather give the status of Great Bhishma to foolish MMS).

Guru Dronacharya got killed in most undeserving manner, (head beheaded) for he was selfish or had too much love for his son and having seen the poverty, he sided or sold his knowledge to enjoy the wealth and luxury of Kuru Dynasty. As a Brahmin he was NOT supposed to sell, but give free knowledge.... so he did commit grave sins.....

In Indian mythology, death related sanskaras are of vital importance for it is supposed to give solace to the departed soul. Rajiv Gandhi died without a trace of body part is similar to Lord Shiva burning a person to ashes, such is the intensity of sins committed

The only survivor from Kauravas is Yuyutsu, who is the only person to have crossed over to Pandavas at beginning of the epic 18 day war. For given a chance to do as per one's own consciousness, he switched sides, knowing well that he has lots of gratitude and other favors due to his elder cousin brother Duryodhana......

As a Sardar, he is supposed to be showing his bold and decisive nature and NOT shamelessly bow to a hotel waitress and her son, in the name of gratitude.

MMS is no exception and analogy shows the same

Your sympathy to MMS is misplaced. Indian culture or religion does NOT consider the situation or compulsions....rather than the natural laws under which the actions are analyzed by Lord Yamaraj.

23-Sep-2012 07:09 AM

Comment Good English!! Well written, Dr Bali but the fact is that the entire bureaucracy the World over(not just in India) does just that. They are by definition; 'a professional corps of officials organised in a pyramidal hierarchy and functioning under impersonal, uniform rules and procedures. Its characteristics are authority based on administrative rules rather than personal allegiance or social custom, and a “rational” and impersonal institution whose members function more as “offices” than as individuals.' So any one who has moved on from government service to become a politician can fit into the story you have written so well with your Stephanian flare. Natwar Singh, Gen Khanduri, Mani Shankar Aiyer, Yashwant Sinha and so on are all of the same ilk, but then I would any day prefer them over Sushma, Maya, Jaya, Mulayam, Sushil Shinde, the Thakeray pack, Lalu and the entire lot of Professional Politicians who are in politics for all the wrong reasons and through all the wrong means. These bureaucrats turned politicians during the course of their careers, I suppose realise that their intellectually bankrupt political bosses are literally eating out of their hands, so why shouldn't they themselves become the bosses. Dr Manmohan Singh has undoubtedly presided over a dark period of India Politics, plagued with corruption and impropriety, for which one does hold him responsible, being the 'First?'among Equals. Trying to make him look like a spineless man, as you have tried in your article, would be unjust and displays your lack of perception(despite being so learned). Don't Mind sir I am probably not endowed and learned enough to comment on your views but this is how I sincerely feel. He is a Man trapped in a sad set of circumstances - loyalty to those who placed him on a pedestal(made him the fall guy); connected to this his de facto 'titular' status(the real power centre being offset party-ward); the global slow down; a set of strange bedfellows(coalition tantrums); corrupt goings on under his nose(all these must have been justified to him by his advisers and colleagues as 'the done things' in politics) and so on. Sir you are an expert with enviable antecedents in your domain, you may be in a position to understand what he as a Technocrat must've and is going through - can't you see that sad, stoic silence he bears on his countenance; those dazed eyes that must have helplessly witnessed so much wrong taking place under his jurisdiction. Remember he was never an Administrator so expecting him to wield the Baton and throw his weight around would be expecting to unlikely. He has always been an adviser, expert, bureaucrat etc which explains his selection as the fall guy.

17-Sep-2012 09:45 AM

Comment Not only Manmohan Singh,If you look at the career graph of Shashi Tharoor,Montek Singh Ahliwalia and many such career bureaucrats You will find that their postings,positions are due to Qualities described in the above article.

27-Aug-2012 06:05 AM

Comment Fine insight. Pl. rectify the spelling errors: Malvolio, Ghias-ud-din

pradip bhattacharya
27-Aug-2012 01:46 AM

Comment An excellent article, enjoyed very much. Could you write a similar piece on the greatest ever fixer?

25-Aug-2012 04:23 AM

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