PM Manmohan Singh shrewdly silent Hopes Justice In History
Dr Manmohan Singh as he leaves the high office of India’s Prime Minister and rides into sunset hoped history would judge him more kindly. Compared to whom he did not say but, obviously in his mind he possibly meant the present set of columnists and political analysts, who have been accusing him of presiding over corruption, scams and of policy paralysis. He said as much in his January 3, press conference, third in his decade-long tenure as prime minister.
Dr Singh whose biggest legacy, is art of silence both as a political weapon for defence and for making opponents ‘impotent’, meaning making them feel helpless as all attempts to make him respond is rendered futile. The art of silence has helped Dr Singh weather many storms.
He sits in either Houses of Parliament with a stoic face, expressionless possibly not even batting his eyes while criticisms, accusations and near abuses fly around him. This makes his opponents frustrated and in utter despair they give up.
Only once he mentally noted what was being said about him and he responded with such pathos that it must have made even hardcore critics of his feel remorse. He mentioned that he had been called a ‘chor’, the only prime minister to be ridiculed with such charge. Possibly in his hurt he forgot that Tony Blair was called war-monger and murderer for joining the Americans in the war against Saddam Hussain.
To his credit Dr Singh deserves the plaudit for managing to remain at 7, Race Course, for 10 years, albeit at the courtesy of Sonia Gandhi, without ever contesting for the Lok Sabha, a first in Indian political history and thus became the second prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, to remain prime minister, uninterrupted for two terms. He is also the first prime minister to announce his resignation. In any case it was a clever move. He would either become the last Congress prime minister for quite some time or he knows that he would surely be replaced most probably by Rahul Gandhi, if the Congress is able to stitch together a coalition after the April general election.
But on the debit side he has serious charges to fend off. As the current indications are that, India will have a non-Congress government after May, the new regime, unless controlled by Mulayam Singh, which is now nearly impossible or probably by an AAP controlled, must inquire if Manmohan Singh’s name should figure in the 2G scam and ‘Coalgate’ First Information Reports.
If Dr Singh had quit office after the first term, 2004 to 2009, he would have gone with blazing glory. ‘Appointed’ by Sonia, he had strong credentials as a wold famous economist and with the reputation of probity in public life. His honesty and integrity were unimpeachable. But with the beginning of his second term, these very attributes which made him one of the most respected prime ministers had begun to lose their lustre.
When he announced at the recent press conference that he would retire after the general elections, his reputation and credibility were in shreds. The public believes that while most scams were because of other ministers, Dr Singh presided over them with complete silence. That most felt was collusion. Dr Singh says he was under coalition compulsions.
The happenings which tainted his image permanently include, awarding Padma Bhushan to US-based Sant Singh Chatwal, against whom a few cases were allegedly pending; the alleged reluctance in removing Lovely from the post of CEO of Prasar Bharti and then reportedly saving him from prosecution.
He did not object to the appointment of Navin Chawla as the Election Commissioner in 2005: “This was one of the first acts of Mr Singh which smacked of brazen political considerations and betrayed gross contempt for public good. Chawla was virtually declared a “tyrant” who was “authoritarian and callous” by the Shah Commission which probed the excesses committed by the regime of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency between 1975 and 1977.”
The Commission declared Chawla “unfit to hold any public office”. Yet Dr Singh overlooked Chawla’s tainted past, reportedly because of Sonia Gandhi. Chawla was favourite of the Gandhis since Sanjay’s time.
After this doubts began to arise as to the integrity of Dr Singh. He appeared to be ready to compromise and spineless particularly when commanded by his appointee. Did he forget so soon the contents of his oath of office—that he would work in accordance with the Constitution and the law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will! There were other selections like that the appointment of PJ Thomas as Chief Vigilance Commissioner, which was quashed by the Supreme Court. Then there was seemingly connivance at the direction of his boss to let Ottavio Quattrocchi escape allegedly with a commission totaling $7.3 million from Bofors.
Dr Singh was asked about the Commonwealth Games scam, the 2G scam and ‘Coalgate’, where his responses appeared to skirt around the real facts. Critics alleged that he was trying “to cover up his actions which could actually place him in the list of accused in some of these corruption cases”. With all these reported charges against him, Dr Singh at the end of his tenure appears to be a forlorn figure, even abandoned by his mentors the Gandhis.
He said that history would judge him more kindly. On what basis he hopes for such redemption?
Foreign policy, which he has remote controlled
Most probably history would first note that Dr Singh was a globe-trotter, a pioneer among India’s Prime Ministers and note he was a restless world traveller. He has, according to Prabhu Chawla, Chief Editor, The New Indian Express, flown over a million miles covering 50 countries since he took over the tenancy of the 7 Race Course Road.
Since 2004, he has spent every 10th day in some foreign city. Says Chawla, since wooing super powers has been his only global mission, over half the visits have been to the US, China, Japan, UK and Russia, with US leading the chart with 11 visits. But since he has been flying all over at the expense of the public exchequer, he owed to the people to let them know what he achieved which was good for the country and secured beneficial agreements for development of the country and the people. Has he?
The political analysts dwelt on the gains from ,and the real impacts of his reportedly 80 visits during his nine years in office, while Dr Singh was on his 36th sojourn abroad-to China and Russia. The list of his achievements, in real terms, seems rather faded. His negatives are many. Dr Singh has succeeded in making India’s most trusted ally, Russia, suspicious of India’s growing proximity to the American Establishment. Europe, which used to look up to the economist PM for guidance, is ignoring him because it has seen what he has done to the Indian economy.
Thank God we were not reduced like India’s economic woes, said a EU senior, while smiling. Hope it was a joke! But the unfortunate truth is that Dr Singh from once being hailed as one of the most successful PMs and thus was initially given great respect during his foreign visits, was later not regarded “one of the movers and shakers of international affairs”.
Manmohan Singh was relegated to one of the many in South Africa during CHOGM and during his last meetings with President Obama and Nawaz Sharif, he was confined to “the margins of the playfield of high-powered diplomacy”, according to a former Ambassador. How much Washington and Barack Obama were impressed by Dr Singh became evident in the Devyani case. India is not on Obama’s radar. Dr Singh is no longer “like” family as Obama said a couple of times.
Dr Singh bent backwards for peace with Pakistan reportedly in the hope of a Nobel Peace Prize and going down in history as the only prime minister to bring peace between India and Pakistan. Its only outcome was more aggression by Islamabad and a record number of violations of LoC. The almost daily incursions and even beheading of a jawan along the LoC seemed not to trouble his conscience. On the other hand superpowers continue to flirt with the democratically-elected but ISI-controlled Pak premier, Nawaz Sharif.
Dr Singh’s insistence on keep talking with Pakistan has produced no positives. But he still hopes to visit Gah in Pakistan which is his birthplace. Is this reason why he wants talks to continue between the two countries. And one can bet he would go before his term expires. He gets what he is determined to.
The China story is similar. Do not be happy at the claims that border issues have been solved through the Border Pact between Dr Singh and the new Chinese Premier Li. All the “agreements” are futuristic—dependent on confidence building measures. The visa issue was not resolved. China could continue to issue stapled visas. And it also means that the Chinese claim over Arunachal Pradesh was not even discussed, at least not with the force that was needed. Was there any discussion over reports that Beijing stationed around 15,000 troops in Pok not far from LoC. Was there any strong objection by India on the incursions by the Chinese troops at will?
“None of the beneficiaries of India’s economic liberalisation and munificence in terms on unrestricted access to Indian markets have gone beyond the written speeches they deliver at formal dinners, expressing sympathy for India’s claim for a permanent place at the UN high table.” But the dream of a permanent seat is unfulfilled.
SAARC member countries and others in South Asia have been woefully neglected. They were forced to look elsewhere and thus India has lost its hold over neighbours. China has knit a necklace of pearls around India. It has built a port and an airport is almost ready in Sri Lanka, its alliance with Pakistan is all-weather proof and
even lightweight Maldives has developed muscles to defy India. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is shaky because South Block failed to help her consolidate her position in her country.
The balance sheet of successes in diplomacy is almost blank. He would unfortunately not find happy noting in History.
On Domestic Politics
Dr Manmohan Singh’s scathing ‘judgment’ of Narendra Modi, almost at the end of the press conference was possibly meant to cover up all the deficiencies in him and the UPA government. He was right. The headlines were about the disparaging remark about Modi. “Without discussing the merits of Narendra Modi, I sincerely believe that it will be disastrous for the country to have Modi as the PM.” Reports said he “declared (this) in a low voice, without altering his expression”. But he did not expound on why was Modi disastrous for India? His associates like Mulayam Singh acknowledged that Modi is a factor in the general election. The fact is that Modi has become known and popular, it would have been better if Dr Singh elaborated and gave the reason for his lowly opinion of a man who has been thrice Chief Minister and his state Gujarat is most developed.
Being a prime minister he should be privy to information, not known to us, which made him consider Modi a disaster for India.He had the opportunity to “disgrace” Modi by sharing with us the reasons for his lowliest of view of Modi. It would have also pleased his mentors, the Gandhis. In one stroke Modi would have been politically finished. But after a sign of aggression, he retreated into his normal state of silence.
He broke his “principle” once again when a reporter asked him, giving Dr Singh an opportunity to deride Modi more by asking why he was generally considered a ‘weak prime minister’. Dr Singh’s reply should be enshrined as the most ridiculous and silly remark, ‘If by strong prime minister you mean you preside over the massacre of innocents on the streets of Ahmadabad, that is not the kind of strength I will like to have.’ Quite right, Mr Prime Minister.
The Gandhis would be maha-happy. But unfortunately for you they cannot reward you anymore. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is occupied and you have lived your lease of 7, Race Course Road. Nor they are likely to come back to power, so that some kind of position could be carved for you to continue your long innings in office. One does not think they would oblige like Chandra Shekhar did. And if Modi presided over massacre, although he has been found not guilty several times, people believe that you presided over the most corrupt government in the annals of contemporary India. And at least under Modi, the growth and development in Gujarat has been phenomenal. This is due to Modi’s economic ideas and his notions of providing firm governance.
Significantly, Dr Singh did not talk about his promise to rid India of corruption, he was also reticent on a few other important issues. Official figures show that more than 20 years of economic reforms, initiated by Dr Singh in spite of corrective mechanisms such as the MGNREGA, have resulted in greater inequality. “This trend is in contrast to the decade between 1983 and 1993-94, when the percentage of those below the poverty line declined by 9.8 percentage points, while it was reduced by only 8.3 percentage points over the following 10 years”, said writing in The Indian Express, Christophe Jaffrelot senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Also, liberalisation allows those who have some capital—be it in terms of education, land or money—to invest and flourish while others have to wait for the trickle-down effect. Now, this percolation is only possible in geographical terms when the rich can invest where the poor live.
“The rise of inequality in India may not be what Singh will be remembered for in history, but it has probably been the most striking consequence of the trickle-down theory. After two decades of liberalisation, investment in agriculture and infrastructure is key. Only the state can undertake such investment. The fiscal reform that would make it possible may well be the need of the day to create jobs, not only in the cities where industry needs to grow, but also in villages..” Ironically, the very same middle class that has benefited most from Manmohanomics, as evident from the social inequalities is the most critical of Singh.” And that has been his undoing. In contrast to his condemnation of Modi. Dr Singh was rather civil and charitable when Aam Aadmi was mentioned. “Time will tell (if AAP has been) capable of dealing with challenges. (They) must be given time to justify themselves.” Quite right, that’s what the Gandhis want. A fence has been created to stop Modi.
It means that the Congress has given up of all hope in the coming election. So it is backing AAP which it is sure would fail to fulfill most of its promises and become Congress’s B-Team. The present scenario indicates it. Hailed and deified by the media, AAP is losing its shine. Its base, the people seem to feel somewhat cheated.
But coming back to Dr Singh, he might take heart in believing that history would judge him more kindly, but the fact is that History would first record that he might have been a good man, but he was pushed into an arena that he did not know much about. And although he was Prime Minister he was not allowed to lead the government and had to constantly get approval for every action from the decision-making authority in the background.
He was the man vested with ‘sham authority’ to cover all the blame. But then why did he not quit? .Well trappings of power seduced him, tenancy of a huge bungalow with sprawling lawns, riding a 7-series BMW on a road which was all his, because all his ‘subjects’ would be kept out of sight. So many opportunities were available to him for pleasing his cronies and his own, if he wished. But in any case the very thought would have filled with a sense of power
And then power corrupts. He evidently did not relish ‘staying’ in India too much because he could not get the honour which he got outside. Here his power were sham, because here power-givers were the real power. It was, it is said widely, that he moved horses, knights and even soldiers on the political chess-board on the ‘advise’ of the Gandhis. Naturally, therefore, he preferred globe-trotting as many times as possible, for in foreign lands he initially got the welcome and respect that India’s Prime Minister is accorded.
The history would note, not with much praise of him, but as a point to show that he would be weak when he thought it was wise to be so, but very determined to get whatever he wanted. He risked his job for the Indo-US nuclear Treaty for peaceful purposes. He got Padma Bhushan for Sant Singh Chatwal, despite cases pending against him, and his PMO saw to it that nothing happened to Lovely, CEO, Prasar Bharati, despite being indicted by CBI and court.
How history could judge him kindly? It would be interesting to study, if he had any redeeming factors!
By Vijay Dutt