Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has left his official residence and he did so in characteristically low-key style. He took away only his personal belongings, all his books and a couple of small pieces, leaving behind all the gifts he received over the last 10 years to be deposited in the government treasury. Quite a contrast to those politicians who refuse to let go their bungalows much after they have demitted office and often forget to pay their rents. Singh’s departure was in keeping with his personality — understated and decent.
Many of his erstwhile critics, political and otherwise, are discovering virtues in him. The BJP’s Arun Jaitley called him a “wise man whose personal integrity was always aboveboard,” though he pointed out that he did not always have his own way. Columnists and TV anchors have spoken about his many achievements as Prime Minister, ranging from passing landmark legislation such as the Right to Information to the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act. His foreign policy management was excellent and so was his steering the country through a tough economic storm after the global financial crisis in 2008. He threw all his weight behind the nuclear agreement with the United States and carried the day, despite opposition from his own party and UPA allies. He was a respected voice among world leaders; President Obama called him his guru. And most of all, he brought a rare decency to politics, always the gentleman and indulging in quiet comment, rather than hectoring verbosity.
This is quite the contrast to the constant barrage of attacks on him during his tenure, especially in the last five years, when he was called a Hollow Man, a ‘nikamma’ (by L K Advani), a puppet and much worse. He was shown as inefficient in handling his own ministers and unable to take any decisions till Sonia Gandhi approved them. He failed to check the scams taking place under his own nose and when his ministers were caught redhanded, he had no effective reply. In fact, his silences went against him, the perception being that he chose the easier path of not saying anything, rather than saying something awkward and strong. Indians tend to be very sentimental and given to extreme emotions and this, to some extent, explains the outpouring of affection for the Prime Minister soon after the waves of derision that every utterance of his was greeted with. But, like all human beings, Manmohan Singh is a complex character, with his good and bad sides and during his ten years in office, took some smart and some rotten decisions. Yet, what is his overall legacy?
One way to answer that question is to look at his report card. If one were to focus on the scams and the inept handling of corrupt ministers who seem to be busy making money, the overall impression is mixed. A prime minister is supposed to be the leader, not just of his team, but also the country, and here he could not rise to the occasion. He was a man we could be proud of, for his intellect, honesty and good manners, but when your own cabinet does not take your authority seriously, what good are those qualities? He must take the blame for the crony capitalism that happened under his watch; saying that these were the compulsions of coalition politics will not wash. India is in a much better place than it was in 2004 and the lives of millions of people have improved, thanks to various schemes and the general economic growth, but sadly, it is the mega corruption that overshadows those accomplishments. For this, not just the government and individual politicians, but the corporate sector too must take the blame; the corruption in various sectors could not have happened if there was no bribe-giver as much as the bribe-taker. Yet, the buck stops with the leader and that leader was Manmohan Singh.
Perhaps Singh’s greatest strength, of being a high-minded technocrat who could crunch numbers and look at the broad picture, was also his weakness. He was not the kind of politician who has his ear to the ground. Good politicians immediately sense the implications of a decision and understand how it will play with their constituents. They are people-persons in the traditional sense, who are in touch with their voters directly and through their own networks. They go down to villages and slums and interact with citizens and get feedback. Indira Gandhi was a good example of that kind of politician and not surprisingly, the common folk of India loved and respected her. Her ‘Garibi Hatao’ cry won her the elections and the admiration of millions; this government could not even sell its NREGA and Food Security initiatives, both meant for the poorest of the poor, to the country. The middle class felt money was being wasted and this alienated them. Singh, not being a politician, did not know how to reach out to them and explain what his government was doing. The Congress Party, itself run by rootless wonders, also failed to spread the word.
History will be kind to Singh, because soon enough, we will realise what a different man he was. His successes would have laid the foundation on which India’s economic growth will be built for many more years. The mobile revolution is but one example of what his government created. And we will also remember him for his personal honesty and integrity, which are great virtues in this day and age of macho swagger. But as he recalls his days as PM, will Singh ponder over how he could have done things differently?