The paradox of Manmohan Singh

The paradox of Manmohan Singh

In early March, a few days after the shock resignation of his navy chief over a string of accidents involving naval assets, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Admiral D.K. Joshi and his wife to a farewell tea at his residence. There, looking at India's first armed services chief to quit on an issue of moral responsibility, India's first Sikh prime minister perhaps felt he owed the gentleman-officer a word of explanation.

"Admiral, there were many times when I, too, thought of resigning," said Dr Singh, who comes from a community with a long martial tradition. "But every time, I thought of the nation and decided to stay on."

These words, never before reported, underscore the paradox of Manmohan Singh.

Insulted

His well-wishers, and, if his former media adviser Sanjaya Baru is to be believed, even one of his three daughters, would have liked him to quit mid-term, particularly last year when he was insulted by his fellow party man and putative successor - two-time MP Rahul Gandhi.

That was when Mr Gandhi unexpectedly showed up at a Congress Party junior leader's press conference to attack legislation just passed by Dr Singh's Cabinet that would have effectively voided a Supreme Court order banning from Parliament those who had received criminal convictions. Calling it "nonsense", Mr Gandhi proceeded to dramatically tear up a copy of the ordinance.

The Prime Minister was abroad at the time for a meeting with US President Barack Obama, and India's frenetic media feasted on the news of the clash within the Congress. Many, including Mr Baru, wanted Dr Singh to quit immediately to save himself and his office from being demeaned by the upstart Congress vice-president whose farcical intentions, clearly, were to distance himself from the government so influenced by the party headed by his mother, Sonia.

But, at the time, like countless occasions before when his writ did not run past the powerful Gandhi clan, Dr Singh stayed on, swallowing the phlegm.

Some critics say he did so because he, or people in his immediate family, had come to enjoy the trappings of office and were reluctant to let it all go. Others, who remember the lengthy bio-data of Dr Singh that his office would put out, detailing even district-level Rotary Club awards, think he was chasing a record of being the only prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to serve out two consecutive full terms.

The most charitable explanation - and his words to Adm Joshi bear this out - was that Dr Singh may have been reluctant to make way for a possibly corrupt successor who may have been pitchforked to office merely on the basis of his personal loyalty to the Gandhi mother and son.

Either way, history will record that Dr Singh, whose personal integrity is unimpeachable, was unable, or unwilling, to intervene as he presided over what is generally regarded as India's most corrupt period since the nation's independence from British rule in 1947.

Indeed, his silence was so resounding that it had become the subject of jokes around the nation. At a concert by top Indian and Pakistani musicians at Singapore's Star theatre last year, the Indian master of ceremonies began by requesting that the audience "switch your cellphones to Manmohan Singh mode".

A mixed record

Yet, to judge Dr Singh on the basis of the many scams that marked his second term is not to get the full picture of the man or the government he ran for 10 years, however timorously at times; for the full record is mixed.

Among his top achievements, no doubt, is that India enjoyed a period of social harmony, a not insignificant achievement for a nation whose religious communities - and castes - have often clashed. While his own background as a minority Sikh played a small part, recent research also indicates that the strong growth registered in his first term starting 2004 - thanks to the sound economy he inherited from the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government - also contributed to social peace as people focused on improving their lives.

But growth has slowed significantly in his second term on the back of his government's policy paralysis and persistently high inflation that has needed more than a dozen interest rate increases.

Sadly, his last two years have seen average economic expansion of less than 5 per cent, bringing to the surface once again the acid label of "Hindu rate of growth". Worse, he failed to over-rule a dirigiste finance minister who slapped a retrospective tax on key multinationals such as telecoms giant Nokia, scaring away investors.

"His credentials as the architect of the 1991 reforms were an important factor in his being chosen prime minister, yet the promise that his elevation held remains only partially fulfilled," the respected newspaper The Hindu said in an editorial yesterday.

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