By Adhirath Sethi
he 2004 General Elections coincided – somewhat inconveniently – with my third-year exams at university. Determined not to be distracted, I ploughed on with my studies even as murmurs around me spoke of an upset. The Congress Party was gathering steam and key BJP bastions were falling in several states. The mother-son duo formed an effective pair and India was leaning back towards the party that started it all.
As I stepped out from my final paper, I glanced at a student walking past me holding a copy of The Economist. On the cover was a photo of Manmohan Singh with the caption “Who? Me?” No two words could have more succinctly summarised the result of India’s elections, nor what the next ten years held for the new Prime Minister.
For most of our generation, Manmohan Singh is credited with opening up the Indian economy back in 1991, when he was Finance Minister. If nothing else, we owe him thanks for allowing us to upgrade from Bata to Nike, from Doordarshan to Star TV, and from Thumbs Up to Pepsi. Incidentally, we all seem to prefer Thumbs Up again now, but that’s not Dr Singh’s fault. The point is – the man gave us options.
But much like Ishant Sharma, who had that one good bowling spell in 2008 and has spent the next ten years milking it, Manmohan Singh rode all that good karma from his 1991 reforms to become Prime Minister. Only, he ended up with about as much power within the party as Ishant Sharma probably has within the Indian dressing room.
Incidentally, we all seem to prefer Thumbs Up again now, but that’s not Dr Singh’s fault.
Sometimes, the mockery of a system goes so far that it emerges as the new status quo. And such it was with Dr Singh, who was clearly a puppet installed by Sonia Gandhi. Among the bloodied, marred and tainted political careers of most Indian politicians, Manmohan Singh had held his reputation as a squeaky-clean legislator. Even swiping him with Tide could not make the man any whiter. Who better to act as the figurehead for a party still reeling under scams from its past?
Regardless of how we felt about the dummy appointment, one cannot deny that it was a politically brilliant move. Somehow, we all assumed that with him at the helm, things might be done with more integrity. And when this ceased to be the case; when scam after scam kept cropping up during the UPA’s second term, we still felt that it wasn’t his fault. After all, who ever blames the puppet when the show goes badly?
Over time, we grew accustomed to the fact that the man saying very little, had, in fact, very little to say. We accepted that he was calling practically no shots within the party and offered equal parts sympathy and ridicule in his direction. And when his second term ended, and even his untarnished record could not save the UPA from defeat, we allowed him to melt into the history books with a sad pat on his back and a throwaway “Thanks for McDonalds”.
Unless you live under a rock, you might be aware that a new film portraying Dr Manmohan Singh is set to release shortly. Given Dr Singh’s extreme reticence over his ten-year stint as our Prime Minister, I’m amazed they were able to scrape together enough dialogue to avoid it being a silent film.
After all, who ever blames the puppet when the show goes badly?
That said, the trailer of the film makes it rather clear that Manmohan Singh was clearly a Bheeshma-type character, duty-bound to toe the party line and do what was asked of him. There is a shot where he appears to be clearly pleading with Sonia Gandhi to allow him to resign and she doesn’t let him. Her reasoning: that to hand over the reigns to Rahul Gandhi amid scam-season, would hamper his political career. Of course, we all came to learn that RaGa is gifted enough to shoot his career in the foot all by himself, with no help from scams of any kind.
The trailer presumes we will dole out sympathy to Dr Singh – a sentiment that the book’s author Sanjaya Baru said he was aiming for. However, it seems almost childish to harbour such an expectation. Are we so blinded by his “wise old man who wants to do the right thing but is powerless against the forces that be” routine that we forget that there was plenty he could have done, if indeed he felt the party’s morals were incongruent with his own? Instead he stood quietly (seriously, who did the screenplay for the film? Someone give that person a medal!) and allowed things to happen around him, safe in the knowledge that at least his reputation was somehow unsullied by it all.
If it is in fact true that Dr Singh was simply “not allowed” to resign, despite his stance, it speaks poorly of his tenacity and character as a leader. We have seen two RBI governors resign on principle and while we can question whether anything really changed, you cannot argue that it put an uncomfortable spotlight on the government. The post of Prime Minister is the highest office in the land and it is precisely from such a pinnacle that a leap carries any real significance. Manmohan Singh’s resignation would have sent a bolt through the UPA, signalling that his integrity was not a handy shield they could wave over their heads any time the harsh glare of inquiry beamed down on them.
So, before we spoon out sympathy for our former PM, and lament the sorry predicament he found himself in for a decade, let’s accept that he did have some power. It would have required some harsh action on his part – action that would have spoken far louder than the words he was so frugal with. That he chose not to exercise any of it, is his true legacy.
Adhirath Sethi is a novelist based in Bangalore