How history will see him

The PM made the remarkable point that most corruption cases had occurred during UPA-I, but the repeat mandate meant that either the electorate had forgiven or overlooked the issue

How history will see him

The most reassuring thing about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is that he is so utterly predictable. Almost everything about his Friday press conference, his third in the 11 years of his tenure, went according to an anticipated script. Unlike his preferred successor, Rahul Gandhi, who is prone to rash and knee-jerk views that leave both the UPA Government and the Congress rushing to manage the fallout, Manmohan Singh said absolutely nothing that would leave the ruling dispensation red-faced and embarrassed. 

In fact, the prime minister spent 90 minutes saying very little that went beyond the anodyne. He left the question of his legacy to future historians to judge, hoping that they would not be as ungenerous as the contemporary media; he blamed India’s poor economic performance on global factors, believing that he had done his utmost to mitigate its effects on the weaker sections; he praised Congress President Sonia Gandhi for being a pillar of strength, thereby contesting the belief that dual control had led to a dysfunctional government; he said that “only time will tell” whether or not the Aaam Aadmi Party comes up to popular expectations; he conveniently dodged the question as to whether he felt the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister was guilty of corruption on the plea that he was unfamiliar with the details of his case; and he even refused to categorically answer how he would spend his proposed retirement as prime minister in five months, leaving that too to “time will tell.”
In a nutshell, Manmohan Singh lived up to his reputation as the babu who had strayed into a political job. There were just two exceptions. The first was a brave attempt to shield his own reputation from the charge that he presided over a corrupt government and looked the other way as venal ministers shortchanged the exchequer. Earlier, he had fallen back on the excuse that misdeeds were a consequence of the “compulsions of coalition politics.” Now, with major coalition partners such as the Left and the DMK having deserted him, the Prime Minister changed tack. Most of the corruption cases, he said without blinking, dated back to the time of UPA-I. Since then, he argued, the country had given the Congress another mandate to forge the UPA-II. This merely showed, he implied, that the electorate had either forgiven the erring ministers, or had tacitly felt that corruption was not an issue that affected its larger political judgement.
Since there were no supplementary questions permitted by the officious minister of information and broadcasting who presided over the occasion, it was unclear as to exactly what the prime minister implied. But critics have been quick to point out the incongruity of using a popular mandate to justify past errors. In that case, it has been suggested, why should the record of the 2002 riots—about which the prime minister had a few harsh words—be held against Narendra Modi? After all, hasn’t Modi won three successive elections, each with a two-thirds majority, after the riots? More to the point, the courts haven’t found anything to justify the prosecution of Modi.
This uncharacteristic incongruity in Manmohan Singh’s logic may well prompt the conclusion that he is guilty of double standards: One for the Gujarat Chief Minister and one for those who are in his political pack or are potentially friendly.
That Manmohan Singh isn’t as innocent as he makes himself out to be also came across in his strong indictment of Modi. When it came to anticipating the performance of the AAP Government in Delhi, which incidentally enjoys the Congress’ ‘outside support’, he fell on the time-tested cliché that “it remains to be seen” and that “it is too early to tell.” At the same time, when answering the question on a possible Narendra Modi-led government at the centre, Manmohan Singh was full of certitudes. Modi as prime minister, he proclaimed with rare unambiguity, would be “disastrous” for the country.
Regardless of the fact that this was one issue where the prime minister was willing to prophesy—something he is unwilling to do for even his retirement plans—the sharp denunciation of Modi is certain to warm the hearts of the average Congress supporter. After all, for the Congress, the real opponent is not going to be Arvind Kejriwal: If anything, the Congress expects the AAP to eat into the BJP’s anti-Congress vote. Regardless of the media hype surrounding the new chief minister of Delhi, the Congress knows that its most formidable challenge is going to be Modi. On Friday, the prime minister confirmed it and he also indicated that the Congress is going to make Modi’s alleged lack of “secular” credentials a poll issue.
Apart from making the demoralised Congress supporter a little more combative, the prime minister’s strong words against Modi had another definite purpose. The Congress, it would appear, has decided that on balance, it does not suit it to make the performance of the UPA-II an overriding theme of the next general election. The Congress believes that it has a relatively greater chance of success if it makes the Lok Sabha poll a referendum on Modi. The Gujarat Chief Minister, they still feel, has only a limited appeal.
Whether or not this is true will be tested in the polls. However, the Congress may find it surprising that the BJP is also celebrating the prime minister’s sharp indictment of its leader. After a week of nervousness over the larger national impact of the AAP, the BJP can take heart that Modi still dominates the agenda. The failure of the UPA-II is still being viewed through the prism of an alternative ‘strong’ leader.

Swapan Dasgupta

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