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The Shadow Warrior: Excellent Op-Ed on the Legacy of India’s Manmohan Singh

Ironically, history may finally judge Manmohan Singh not by who he was and what he did, but by what comes after
Tarun J Tejpal

by Tarun J Tejpal

THIS WOULD be the interesting question. Not how everyone and their tentwallah judge Manmohan Singh, but what, when he looks into the mirror, does he make of himself? Does he see a professorial economist who bust the seams of possibility by becoming the Prime Minister of the biggest democracy in the world? Or does he see a decent, remarkably inoffensive bloke who also managed to become a decent, remarkably inoffensive politician? Does he see an efficient flunkey, living and dying by the whim of the master? Or does he see an artful leader couched in the skin of an artless follower? Does he see strength in his eyes? Or does he see weakness in his jaw? Is that honesty shining there, or is it timidity? Is he the handwork of a superior will, or is he the creation of lucky accident?

Wide-eyed moralists imagine history to be a fair and lofty judge, full of considered pronouncements. The truth is history struggles to make sense of the snarl of human affairs. By no reasonable reckoning ought Manmohan Singh to have become one of six Indians in 60 years to serve a full term as a Prime Minister — that too of a coalition government and to be limbering up for more. He’s never won a Parliamentary election; his oratory would not distract snacking birds; he lacks the common touch or the ringing phrase; for his acumen in statecraft he would be turned back from the gates of Kautilya’s gurukul; and if he has driving ambition it’s travelling on an invisible carpet that no one has ever seen. In fact, if motivational pundits want an illustration of the fulfillment of undeclared purpose, here it is. One of the key reasons Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister may well be the fact that he never declared that he wished to be. Perhaps nor did Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh, but oh it shone so bright in their eyes.

The simple way for history to read the unusual Sikh is to say the Bible was right. The meek will inherit the earth — and sometimes the meek will also be decent and efficient. There can be no dispute about that — his decency and efficiency. Yet, laudable traits as they are, they are also routinely found in army officers, film technicians and swayamsewaks. In the leader of a billion people you may want to look for more. Vision, inspiration, courage, will, statecraft — the ability to articulate the soul of a people, to bend the arc of history to a higher note. Execution and implementation are indispensably wonderful things, but there are sound men to do that, bureaucrats and technocrats, economists and social workers — all of them excellent masons and carpenters constructing the edifice the architect has ordained.

Two crucial questions suggest themselves. For the last five years, what has Manmohan Singh really been? The sui generisarchitect, or merely the first among the sound men, the implementers and executors? And secondly, what is the true nature and value of the edifice he has been involved in constructing, as architect or as mason?

His obvious personality makes the answer to both questions tricky and difficult. Some claim it is a mistake to get fooled by his manner. His lack of bluster and grandiloquence — the defining traits of Indian politicians — does not mean he is not the man in charge. In fact, say these admirers, the man is too refined a political animal to fall for these cheap affectations — and it is the reason why he, and not the hustlers, is the Prime Minister.

When tested against the record the theory flounders. There is nothing in Manmohan Singh’s record that suggests that he has ever been a prime mover. At every stage there is clear evidence that he has done what he has been mandated to do. His stint as Finance Minister with Narasimha Rao being a good example. It’s fair to contend that as Prime Minister too, he has carried out the orders of the Congress party, or more accurately, Sonia Gandhi. The broad and narrow guidelines have been Sonia’s; the methodologies perhaps his own.

What may be true is that his ideas have been in reasonable consonance with Sonia’s, but what is also true is that they were played out because they were Sonia’s, not because they were his. This is a somewhat loose statement. Most top decisions are the consequence of consensus — which is anyway Sonia’s style — but the point is the gentle Sikh may be the Prime Minister who spent more time looking over his shoulder than any other in India’s history.

In a curious way, it may have actually worked to his advantage. Given the narrow frame of economics and corporates that have been his dominant world, given his lack of political horse-sense and an idea of the popular pulse, Sonia’s overarching shadow pushing to connect with the underclass, may well have provided him invaluable navigation.

Decency and efficiency are laudable traits, but they are also routinely  found in army officers and swayamsewaks. In the leader of a billion you may want to look for more

AT THE end of five years at the helm, a stern reading might see Manmohan Singh as the uber bureaucrat. Brilliant with files, notations, doing the sums; keeping his head down, never stepping out of line, ruffling no feathers, awaiting his cues. Commanding obedience not by the force of personality, but by virtue of position. Without the PM’s tag he would lead a procession that would scarcely fill a corridor of South Block leave alone Ramlila Maidan.

Well, if he is the uber bureaucrat, the first among the implementers, and at best only a co-architect, then what is the value of the project he has been involved in?

Manmohan Singh’s years will be seen as a rampant reign of the corporate and the wealthy bracketed between two surges for theaam aadmi. The first when the UPA came unexpectedly to power and mouthed the aam aadmi platitudes in sheer gratitude. The second, in these last nine months, prodded by the prospect of going back to a suffering voter. But for the meat of his tenure the Prime Minister — poorly advised or with bad instinct — seemed to exist only for the rich of this country. Interminably, he was to be found in inane event after inane event of the business organisations and the business media. Anyone to do with serious money could always find time with him; anyone to do with people’s problems and people’s movements had to pass out quietly at Jantar Mantar or form a queue outside 10 Janpath.

IT WAS almost perverse, his fascination with the rich. The economist’s awe for those who actually possess wealth not just analyse it. He appeared to have misplaced the most important, unalterable lesson every political leader in India must completely internalise: that first, second and last, the Prime Minister of India must be seen to represent — in every utterance and act, every hour that he is in office — the poor and destitute of the country. This is a covenant beyond argument, till we can educate and feed all our children, till we have brought down the numbers of our impoverished to below 10 million. For the record’s sake, at present, the figure hovers at over five hundred million.

To be fair, as an uber bureaucrat he did apply such poultices as were ordained by the high command, and several of them, from RTI to NREGS, were full of soul. But only too often he failed to provide the presence and the symbolisms that give a ragged, ravaged country fleeting hope. His pronouncements on the Naxalites were ill-advised; his silence on Gujarat and the Muslim persecutions was deafening; the interventions into farmer suicides ineffectual; and on the most important issue of shoring up environmental activism and protection, his tenure may actually prove to have been counter-productive. In every people versus corporates battle — SEZs, environment he did not seem to be on the side of the people.

As an uber bureaucrat he did apply poultices as ordained by the high command but failed to provide the symbolisms that give a ravaged country fleeting hope

The most charitable explanation — and it may well be true — is that he was hobbled by the aggressive interests of the coalition’s constituent parties and by the avarice of his own ministers. This, then, serves up the bitter conundrum of an indisputably honest man who may have presided over a government of great corruptions. It is a conundrum that gives honesty a bad name.

At one point the man showed steel — and instead of repairing his sheen, ended up throwing up fresh questions about his priorities and allegiances. Only time and real events will tell us the gains and losses of the nuclear deal, but for the moment, his image as a World Bank-American construct stands affirmed.

At one point, the man showed statesmanlike calm — and it will always redound to his great credit. Post 26/11, when the chatteratti and the media were baying for Pakistani blood, the Prime Minister remained measured, his response redolent of a great nation’s sagacity, not a punk’s fury.

In fact, that may be one of his lasting legacies. That by just being who he was, he lowered the political shrillness, moderated cheap tempers. At its best, this refinement — even if of the uber bureaucrat — is what we have to be thankful for. It is a sign of the times, and of the state of national political leadership, that we are grateful he did not degrade the public discourse any further, even if he failed to exalt it.

Ironically, history may finally judge him not by who he was and what he did, but by what comes after. If the Hindu right-wing consolidates and comes back, he will be seen as the man who didn’t do enough to stall the storm. If Rahul Gandhi fulfils the promise of his genes and acolytes and ushers in a Congress renaissance, he will be seen as the baton-bearer who provided the smooth transition. A footnote in an astonishing family saga. But if we slide into a mish-mash politics of messy coalitions, contesting identities, narrow claims, and governance anarchy, then he will be fondly remembered as the last of the sane giants.

So what does he possibly see when he looks into the mirror?

He probably sees a sincere, hardworking man who rode every accident of history with humility and gratitude. He probably sees someone truly exceptional, not great. He probably sees more decency than courage, more willingness than will. As the image shimmers, he sees there is a vision, but perhaps in need of some expansion and refurbishing. He turns to catch his profile. The nose and the jaw: well, they belong to both master and follower. He looks into his eyes, and then over his shoulder. He lets out his breath. Actually, he’s done okay. Given the circumstances, as well as he could. And if there is a second chance, he would certainly work harder at doing better.

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