Manmohan Singh and the lessons his history holds for Narendra Modi

Something very subtle but extraordinary happened during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s farewell function in Delhi on the evening of May 14. Mr. Singh was standing next to his wife when Sonia Gandhi walked in and greeted him. He returned it and then left her there to meet his ministers and other Congress leaders. His wife followed him.

Later, there was another photo opportunity where Mrs. Gandhi offered Mr. Singh and his wife a bouquet of flowers each. Mr. Singh received it nonchalantly without even looking at her.

This small gesture is a major leap for Mr. Singh. But it has come ten years late. In fact, there is an undated video in circulation on the social media that has gone viral. It shows Mr. Singh, his hands loosely in attention, waiting at some event for Mrs. Gandhi. She alights from her car behind him and, as Mr. Singh turns to greet her, she walks past him without as much as acknowledging his presence.

As the Congress stared at a shocking defeat on May 16, both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi addressed the media briefly. Putting up an odd smile on his face, Mr. Gandhi said he took responsibility for the defeat as the party’s vice-president. But a day earlier, his picture had been removed from the hoardings at the Congress head office and replaced with the party symbol. The Gandhi family retainers also struggled hard to shift the blame of the party’s defeat away from Mr. Gandhi.

Throughout the day of the results, Congress leaders kept on saying that they accepted the people’s verdict and that the party would do introspection. Once they reach there, a certain section of the party would want to make Manmohan Singh the fall guy.

That is unfair. After all, it was the party chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, number two in the party hierarchy, who called the shots. Along with their close aides, the two decided everything – from candidature to campaign strategy. The Congress party chose to fight elections with Rahul Gandhi’s face as its emblem.

But Manmohan Singh cannot fully escape the responsibility, either. It may be unfair to turn him into a fall guy. But he surely fell down long ago and then forgot to get up. If Che Guevara is the chosen symbol of resistance, a day will come when Mr. Singh’s picture will be used as a symbol of helplessness on T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Singh no king

In the last few months, the images of a meek-looking Manmohan Singh triggered off anger-induced acidity among a majority of Indians. And not all of them were necessarily the pro-Hindutva types. They just could not reconcile with the idea of a prime minister who found it difficult to even throw an arrow properly at Ravan’s effigy during the Dussehra celebrations at Delhi’s Ramlila ground. They felt he had so much lost his identity that he had even begun to speak Hindi like Mrs. Gandhi.

Many of these people hated Narendra Modi when he spoke. He reeked of arrogance, displaying his alpha-male behaviour. He beamed at compliments paid to him over his dressing style. When he walked, he puffed like a flashy boy who may have been pumping iron at his neighbourhood gym for a few weeks.

But at least he talked; he was assertive. People could hear him when he made a speech. They felt Mr. Modi was the man who could set things straight. Sabko seedha kar dega, they would say, while munching at French fries at a McDonald’s. They completely forgot that the man who enabled them their fries is none other than Manmohan Singh.

On July 24, 1991, Mr. Singh made his debut speech as India’s finance minister, ushering in an era of economic liberalisation. His turban had the colour of the clear skies. He invoked Victor Hugo. “Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake,” he said.

In a 2005 interview to the British journalist Mark Tully, Mr. Singh recalled how PV Narasimha Rao had sent his Principal Secretary to ask him to join his cabinet and how he didn’t take it seriously. He recounted how an angry Mr. Rao called him the next day, asking him to dress up and come to take oath as finance minister. He also remembered his Cambridge days where he was influenced by the economist Nicholas Kaldor, and his teacher Joan Robinson, who he said, “sought to awaken the inner conscience of her students in a manner that very few others were able to achieve.”

Passive PM

But while Mr. Singh awakened India to a new beginning, he let his inner conscience go to sleep soon after Mrs. Gandhi made him the prime minister. In December 2004, Narasimha Rao passed away. As he stood next to his mentor’s body, Mr. Singh could see clearly how the Congress would treat its former prime minister. No arrangements had been made to receive Mr. Rao’s body. Later, it was not even allowed a customary stopover at the Congress headquarters. Mrs. Gandhi made sure it was sent to Hyderabad for cremation.

Mr. Singh chose to remain passive about the treatment meted out to Mr. Rao. It took him nine years to redeem Mr. Rao’s legacy when he finally spoke about his contribution during his Independence Day speech last year. But by that time, Mr. Rao had been extirpated from the collective memory of the Congress party.

It was very clear that Mrs. Gandhi had carefully chosen Mr. Singh in 2004. She was confident that he would keep the throne warm for Rahul Gandhi and would faithfully step down when asked to. But in ten years of his tenure, barring his assertion during the US nuclear deal, Mr. Singh was quite happy with the tokenism his post offered. Right under his nose, massive scams in his ministries kept blowing up and he simply chose not to do anything about them. He even let his spin doctors argue that he knew nothing about these developments, subjecting himself to further ridicule. He made speeches without communicating anything.

His conviction about what he said was so weak, he sought its validation from a TV technician.

History is unkind

In September, last year, when Rahul Gandhi publicly denounced an ordinance while Mr. Singh was on a foreign trip, many hoped that at least then he would take a position and resign. But he remained resigned to his circumstances. The phrase Goongi Gudiya (dumb doll), used once prematurely for Indira Gandhi, never felt as apt as it did for Mr. Singh.

Many standup comedians made their career out of jokes on him. Thankfully, Mr. Singh is out of this humiliating situation now. He will hope history will remember him as the man who brought India back from the verge of bankruptcy.

But there are two kinds of histories: one, the Harvard case-study type, and the other that the masses write. The second history, sadly, will be rather unkind to Mr. Singh.

And therein lies a lesson for Narendra Modi. The clear mandate given to him is an indication that a majority among the masses is willing to give him a chance to rewrite his history. If he succeeds to take charge unlike his predecessor and deliver on his promises of development and clean governance, he can secure his history. There, the Photoshop skills of his bhaktas, portraying a bus corridor in Bogota as one in Ahmedabad, won’t help him. The chapter of 2002 will remain, but it will be then, undeservedly, relegated to the appendix.

Manmohan Singh fell and forgot to get up. Mr. Modi got up and began to fly. It is time for him to sit down. Mr. Modi knows well what he will go on to represent should his face appear some day on T-shirts and coffee mugs (beyond the kinds available in BJP offices). That is why he must wean himself away from such paraphernalia.

The challenge for Manmohan Singh was to prove that his inner conscience had not slipped into coma.

Narendra Modi will have to begin by proving he possesses inner conscience.

rahul.p@thehindu.co.in

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