Manmohan Singh ko gussa kab ata hai? Just how hard do you have to step on his Buddha-esque toes before he loses it? The former prime minister rarely breaks his inscrutable silence, but when he does, it’s volcanic. Like his tirade against PM Modi for implying that senior Congress leaders had secretly met with Pakistani representatives, to hatch a conspiracy against the incumbent government.
For the record, the ‘secret meeting’ was a private dinner at Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyar’s residence on Dec 6, a day before he was suspended from the party. In retrospect, for an ex-PM to attend a get-together featuring prominent Pakistani citizens may have been a strategically unsound move under the circumstances, but neither Dr Singh nor the other attendees could have guessed that it would become fodder for the BJP’s Gujarat election campaign.
The normally imperturbable ex-PM is given to selective outbursts, generally when he is on the defensive. He didn’t explode when Congress chief Sonia Gandhi selected Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister in 2009, overruling his own choice of FM without so much as a consultation. Throughout UPA I & II, he quietly accepted the number 2 spot in government despite being PM. Perhaps that’s why he did not react when his erstwhile advisor, Sanjaya Baru, dubbed him “the weakest full-term PM” and backed up the statement with uncomfortable revelations in his book, The Accidental Prime Minister.
But, when BJP veteran L K Advani castigated him for being a “weak PM” and running a “governance deficit” PMO, he responded by taunting him for having failed to achieve his ambition of becoming PM and excoriated him mercilessly for a poor performance as home minister.
Dr Singh was not in the least incensed when, in 2013, Rahul Gandhi publicly rubbished his government’s ordinance negating the Supreme Court ruling on convicted politicians as “complete nonsense…should be torn up and thrown away”. A rather unkind cut, given that Rahul was dissing a government which he had refused to join, despite invitations from the then PM. To add insult to injury, Rahul’s exhibition took place a fortnight after Manmohan had declared Rahul as the ideal choice of PM in 2014.
All through Manmohan Singh’s tenure, he was made to feel like a stand-in for Rahul. The Congress heir had told a newsmagazine, “I could have been (the Prime Minister) at the age of 25 if I wanted to. But I decided I wouldn’t do things in that fashion. I wouldn’t go around yelling at my seniors”. The figurative “yelling” from someone half his age on the controversial ordinance failed to anger Dr Singh. All he said was that he would “speak to Rahul”.
He did not react when party leader Digvijay Singh declared in 2011 that Rahul should be PM, although Manmohan was “fairly good”. Likewise, he showed no signs of being miffed when the then Congress vice-president failed to show up at his public farewell in 2014.
But, his legendary cool deserted him when the Opposition targeted him in the wake of the Coalgate and telecom scams. The then PM threw a spectacular hissy-fit in Parliament, giving the opposition a dressing-down for labelling him a ‘chor’ and not letting him present a defence. And way back when he was finance minister, the opposition’s critique of his policies so hurt his sensitivities, that he was ready to throw in the towel.
Thus, the former PM is capable of anger when his clean image and competence are impugned, except, of course, when it is in-house. The Congress, not so protective of Singh when he was PM, now defends him vigorously. It reacted with pious outrage to PM Modi’s remark that “The art of taking bath wearing a raincoat can be learnt only from Manmohan Singh”, a snide reference to the scams which rocked the UPA on his watch. When the ex-PM was summoned in the Coalgate case, Sonia Gandhi and other party leaders marched to his residence in solidarity.
To be fair, Manmohan Singh has, by and large, adhered to his own maxim that “Building of a consensus is the responsibility of the government and the primary Opposition” during NDA II. His critique of demonetisation was measured, and he allowed GST – a programme of his government – to see light of day.
It is when he is on shaky ground, such as being characterised as a ‘weak PM’ by the opposition, or being ignorant of scams burgeoning under his nose, or breaking bread with Pakistani diplomats at a sensitive juncture in Indo-Pak relations, that he reacts strongly. The BJP should bear in mind that any attempt to besmirch his halo, gleaming despite a rather messy tenure, will provoke a vehement harangue.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.
She is now an independent writer and author.