In the present day Congress, there is a near consensus that Manmohan Singh is a politician among politicians.
By Rasheed Kidwai
The former prime minister is out of parliament for the first time since 1991 but there is a strong possibility that the good doctor may find himself in the upper house for the 6th time with the support of the DMK in July 2019. Dr. Y.K. Alagh had once described Manmohan Singh as most underrated politician and most overestimated economist. In the present day Congress, there is a near consensus that Manmohan Singh is a politician among politicians that made him important for many prime minsters, namely — Chaudhary Charan Singh, Indira Gandhi, Chandrashekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao. Interestingly, Sonia Gandhi’s trust in Manmohan was in sharp contrast with her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s rather dismissive outlook towards the economist.
It was in the year 1985 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had taken a very urban-centric vision of development and restructuring of economy. Manmohan at that point of time was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and Rajiv as prime minister was its ex-officio Chairman. C.G. Somiah, a former Union Home Secretary who retired as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, has recorded a famous incident which has now faded away from public memory involving Dr. Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi in his autobiography The Honest Always Stand Alone (Nyogi Books), Rajiv had described Planning Commission under Manmohan a “bunch of jokers” who were bereft of any modern ideas of development. Rajiv’s “bunch of jokers” remark had reportedly hurt Manmohan and the economist had contemplated to resign from the Planning Commission. But, his second thoughts reportedly prevailed. Somiah claims he convinced Manmohan to stay on. “I sat with him (Manmohan) for nearly an hour and told him not to take the extreme step and blamed the prime minister’s ignorance for this behaviour. I further advised that since the prime minister was young and inexperienced, it was our duty to educate him rather than abandon him. I was finally able to convince him not to act hastily and that was my good deed for the day,” records Somiah in his autobiography.
But, for economic journalist Vivek Kaul, a significant point about Manmohan came out that he did not quit even after the prime minister of the country had publicly called him a “Joker”. What this incident tells us clearly is that Manmohan would rather continue and compromise with the prevailing state of affairs than make bold decisions,” Kaul observed in a column. Manmohan remained subdued and sidelined in most part of Rajiv regime and found himself in University Grants Commission. On the morning of 22 June 1991, a Saturday, Manmohan received a telephone call at his Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi office of the University Grants Commission. Rao was on line who was scheduled to take oath as prime minister that afternoon. Rao asked Manmohan directly: “What are you doing there? Go home and change, and come straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan.”
On Monday 24 June 1991, Manmohan held his first press conference as country’s finance minister to announce the scope of the impending reforms. He promised to clear the “cobwebs of unnecessary control” that had impeded economic development and decreed that “the world has changed, and the country must also change.”
Manmohan Singh’s budget speech delivered on 24 July 1991 saw Congress backbenchers clapping lustily when he granted Rs 100 crore to the newly created Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, headed by then apolitical Sonia Gandhi. Manmohan’s first budget gave him many lessons in realpolitik. His special gesture and unprecedented move to dole out Rs 100 crore grant to a private trust — Rajiv Gandhi Foundation — generated a controversy. The opposition quickly made an issue of how a private trust was being given hard-earned taxpayer’s money. Sonia, Priyanka, Rahul and Amitabh Bachchan, all trustees of the RGF then, were aghast. The move to grant Rs 100 crore boomeranged and withdrawing it would have made matters worse. Rao asked Manmohan to clarify the government’s position to Sonia. Manmohan called on Sonia, but as he sat facing her, he could not muster the courage to come to the point. He kept speaking in general terms till tea was served. Finally, he began slowly, apologising, saying that he had no intention of embarrassing her or belittling the cherished memory of Rajiv, and then going on to explain the government’s dilemma. The grant was withdrawn after Sonia wrote a letter to Rao. It said: “While we thank you personally and your colleagues for this most generous gesture, it would be best if the government instead identified suitable projects and programs and fund them directly and thus honor the memory of my husband.” And thus, Manmohan Singh’s journey as a politician had begun.
When Sonia took over as the party chief from Sitaram Kesri, one of the key decisions that she took was to project Manmohan as a figurehead. It proved to be a good strategy simply because if there was one person in the Congress who enjoyed good rapport and respect throughout the country without winning an election then it was Manmohan Singh. Sonia gave him a Lok Sabha ticket to contest from South Delhi. Manmohan lost to BJP’s Vijay Kumar Malhotra by 30,000 votes. Sonia later came across some evidence that showed dubious role played by some senior Congress leaders in ensuring Manmohan’s defeat. Manmohan’s detractors from within perceived him as a threat to their own position in the party hierarchy. Due to his proximity to Sonia, Manmohan had become an eyesore for the traditional topiwallahs who viewed the technocrat with suspicion. A committee headed by A.K. Antony that investigated the poll debacle of 1996 and 1998 general elections, concluded that Manmohan’s economic reforms had led to the downfall of the party and resulted in the Congress’ poor performance. Sonia, however did not agree and disregarded the Antony panel reports. Manmohan was instead appointed as leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha. At party forum, Manmohan intensely disliked the idea of being grilled by people who had no knowledge of the fundamentals of economics. His skirmishes with Congress leaders left him a disillusioned man. At one juncture, he even toyed with the idea of quitting to taking up academics and track-two diplomacy, but Sonia persuaded him to stay on, promising to defend his policies.
Between 2004 and 2014, the UPA, which had come into being hurriedly and under extraordinary circumstances following Sonia’s act of renunciation in 2004, functioned well under Manmohan, but the coalition faced innumerable challenges from within and outside. In the larger context, it worked more like a bureaucratic machine than a political conglomerate. There were many lacklustre performances in some of the key portfolios, while frequently ministers differed with each other, sidelined their juniors and cared little for a sense of accountability — a basic feature of parliamentary democracy. The row over nuclear deal saw a pragmatic side of Manmohan. In fact, through out August 2007 to July 2008, Manmohan-Sonia teamed up in a shrewd and decisive manner to checkmate their opponents. The N-deal crisis saw Manmohan giving a rare and candid interview to Manini Chatterjee of The Telegraph and told her: “I told them [the Left] that it is not possible to renegotiate the deal. It is an honourable deal, the cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them to do whatever they want to do, if they want to withdraw support, so be it.”
Price rise and inflation however, remained issues of major concern during Manmohan’s second innings as the prime minister but for some inexplicit reasons, in his total 1,379 speeches, Manmohan spoke about inflation only in 6.3% of his total speeches, which was just in 88 speeches in number. Another sensitive issue of cross border terrorism and national security figured as low priority area for Manmohan. Of his total 1,379 speeches, the prime minister talked about terrorism in 307 speeches — which accounts for 22% of his total speeches. More importantly, he failed to inspire confidence of common citizens. The disconnect on national security became glaring when prime minister took four days to speak on a shocking issue of beheading of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan.
Born on September 1932, at Gah (now in Pakistan), Manmohan moved to India when Britain split the subcontinent at Independence in 1947. For the first twelve years of his life he lived in Pakistan, apparently, there was no electricity, no school, no hospital, no piped drinking water in his village. Manmohan had to walk for miles every day to a Urdu medium school and studied at night in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. When asked once why he had poor eyesight he confessed that it was because he had spent hours reading books in that dim light. Urdu remained his first language of sorts throughout his life going beyond poetry. Each time Manmohan delivered a speech in Hindi, he chose Urdu script in bold 18 points to deliver. Manmohan was working at the United Nations under the famous economist Raul Prebisch, he got an offer to join Delhi School of Economics as a lecturer. He accepted the invitation deciding to return to India in 1969. Dr. Prebisch was rather surprised wondering why a brilliant economist like him would give up a lucrative UN job and return to India. “You are being foolish,” Prebisch told Manmohan Singh, adding, “but, sometimes in life it is wise to be foolish!” Returning to India made him a politician among politicians.