Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 13, Dated Apr 04, 2009
The Shadow Warrior
Ironically, history may finally judge Manmohan Singh not by
who he was and what he did, but by what comes after
TARUN J TEJPAL
THIS WOULD be the interesting question. Not how
everyone and their tentwallah judge Manmohan
Singh, but what, when he looks into the mirror,
does he make of himself? Does he see a professorial
economist who bust the seams of possibility by becoming
the Prime Minister of the biggest democracy in the world? Or
does he see a decent, remarkably inoffensive bloke who also
managed to become a decent, remarkably inoffensive politician?
Does he see an efficient flunkey, living and dying by the
whim of the master? Or does he see an artful leader couched
in the skin of an artless follower? Does he see strength in his
eyes? Or does he see weakness in his jaw? Is that honesty shining
there, or is it timidity? Is he the handwork of a superior
will, or is he the creation of lucky accident?
Wide-eyed moralists imagine history to be a fair and lofty
judge, full of considered pronouncements. The truth is history
struggles to make sense of the snarl of human affairs. By
no reasonable reckoning ought Manmohan Singh to have
become one of six Indians in 60 years to serve a full term as a
Prime Minister — that too of a coalition government and to
be limbering up for more. He’s never won a Parliamentary
election; his oratory would not distract snacking birds; he
lacks the common touch or the ringing phrase; for his acumen
in statecraft he would be turned back from the gates of
Kautilya’s gurukul; and if he has driving ambition it’s travelling
on an invisible carpet that no one has ever seen. In fact,
if motivational pundits want an illustration of the fulfillment
of undeclared purpose, here it is. One of the key reasons
Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister may well be the
fact that he never declared that he wished to be. Perhaps nor
did Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh, but oh it shone so
bright in their eyes.
|Decency and efficiency are laudable traits, but they are
also routinely found in army officers and swayamsewaks.
In the leader of a billion you may want to look for more
The simple way for history to read the unusual Sikh is to
say the Bible was right. The meek will inherit the earth —
and sometimes the meek will also be decent and efficient.
There can be no dispute about that — his decency and efficiency.
Yet, laudable traits as they are, they are also routinely
found in army officers, film technicians and swayamsewaks.
In the leader of a billion people you may want to look for
more. Vision, inspiration, courage, will, statecraft — the
ability to articulate the soul of a people, to bend the arc of
history to a higher note. Execution and implementation are
indispensably wonderful things, but there are sound men to
do that, bureaucrats and technocrats, economists and social
workers — all of them excellent masons and carpenters
constructing the edifice the architect has ordained.
Two crucial questions suggest themselves. For the last
five years, what has Manmohan Singh really been? The sui
generis architect, or merely the first among the sound men,
the implementers and executors? And secondly, what is the true nature and value of the edifice he has been involved in
constructing, as architect or as mason?
His obvious personality makes the answer to both questions
tricky and difficult. Some claim it is a mistake to get
fooled by his manner. His lack of bluster and grandiloquence
— the defining traits of Indian politicians — does not mean
he is not the man in charge. In fact, say these admirers, the
man is too refined a political animal to fall for these cheap
affectations — and it is the reason why he, and not the hustlers,
is the Prime Minister.
When tested against the record the theory flounders.
There is nothing in Manmohan Singh’s record that suggests
that he has ever been a prime mover. At every stage there is
clear evidence that he has done what he has been mandated
to do. His stint as Finance Minister with Narasimha Rao being
a good example. It’s fair to contend that as Prime Minister too,
he has carried out the orders of the Congress party, or more
accurately, Sonia Gandhi. The broad and narrow guidelines
have been Sonia’s; the methodologies perhaps his own.
What may be true is that his ideas have been in reasonable
consonance with Sonia’s, but what is also true is that
they were played out because they were Sonia’s, not because
they were his. This is a somewhat loose statement. Most top
decisions are the consequence of consensus — which is
anyway Sonia’s style — but the point is the gentle Sikh may
be the Prime Minister who spent more time looking over his
shoulder than any other in India’s history.
In a curious way, it may have actually worked to his
advantage. Given the narrow frame of economics and corporates
that have been his dominant world, given his lack of
political horse-sense and an idea of the popular pulse, Sonia’s
overarching shadow pushing to connect with the underclass,
may well have provided him invaluable navigation.
AT THE end of five years at the helm, a stern reading
might see Manmohan Singh as the uber bureaucrat.
Brilliant with files, notations, doing the sums;
keeping his head down, never stepping out of line, ruffling no
feathers, awaiting his cues. Commanding obedience not by the
force of personality, but by virtue of position. Without the PM’s
tag he would lead a procession that would scarcely fill a corridor
of South Block leave alone Ramlila Maidan.
Well, if he is the uber bureaucrat, the first among the
implementers, and at best only a co-architect, then what is
the value of the project he has been involved in?
Manmohan Singh’s years will be seen as a rampant reign
of the corporate and the wealthy bracketed between two
surges for the aam aadmi. The first when the UPA came unexpectedly to power and mouthed the aam aadmi platitudes
in sheer gratitude. The second, in these last nine
months, prodded by the prospect of going back to a suffering
voter. But for the meat of his tenure the Prime Minister
— poorly advised or with bad instinct — seemed to exist
only for the rich of this country. Interminably, he was to be
found in inane event after inane event of the business
organisations and the business media. Anyone to do with
serious money could always find time with him; anyone to
do with people’s problems and people’s movements had
to pass out quietly at Jantar Mantar or form a queue
outside 10 Janpath.
|As an uber bureaucrat he did apply poultices as
ordained by the high command but failed to provide the
symbolisms that give a ravaged country fleeting hope
IT WAS almost perverse, his fascination with the
rich. The economist’s awe for those who actually
possess wealth not just analyse it. He appeared to
have misplaced the most important, unalterable lesson
every political leader in India must completely internalise:
that first, second and last, the Prime Minister of India must
be seen to represent — in every utterance and act, every
hour that he is in office — the poor and destitute of the
country. This is a covenant beyond argument, till we can educate and feed all our children, till we have brought down
the numbers of our impoverished to below 10 million. For
the record’s sake, at present, the figure hovers at over five
To be fair, as an uber bureaucrat he did apply such poultices
as were ordained by the high command, and several of
them, from RTI to NREGS, were full of soul. But only too often
he failed to provide the presence and the symbolisms that give
a ragged, ravaged country fleeting hope. His pronouncements
on the Naxalites were ill-advised; his silence on Gujarat and
the Muslim persecutions was deafening; the interventions
into farmer suicides ineffectual; and on the most important
issue of shoring up environmental activism and protection,
his tenure may actually prove to have been counter-productive.
In every people versus corporates battle — SEZs, environment
he did not seem to be on the side of the people.
The most charitable explanation — and it may well be
true — is that he was hobbled by the aggressive interests of
the coalition’s constituent parties and by the avarice of his
own ministers. This, then, serves up the bitter conundrum of
an indisputably honest man who may have presided over a
government of great corruptions. It is a conundrum that gives honesty a bad name.
At one point the man showed steel — and instead of
repairing his sheen, ended up throwing up fresh questions
about his priorities and allegiances. Only time and real
events will tell us the gains and losses of the nuclear deal,
but for the moment, his image as a World Bank-American
construct stands affirmed.
At one point, the man showed statesmanlike calm — and
it will always redound to his great credit. Post 26/11, when
the chatteratti and the media were baying for Pakistani
blood, the Prime Minister remained measured, his response
redolent of a great nation’s sagacity, not a punk’s fury.
In fact, that may be one of his lasting legacies. That by just
being who he was, he lowered the political shrillness, moderated
cheap tempers. At its best, this refinement — even if
of the uber bureaucrat — is what we have to be thankful for.
It is a sign of the times, and of the state of national political
leadership, that we are grateful he did not degrade the public
discourse any further, even if he failed to exalt it.
Ironically, history may finally judge him not by who he
was and what he did, but by what comes after. If the Hindu
right-wing consolidates and comes back, he will be seen as
the man who didn’t do enough to stall the storm. If Rahul
Gandhi fulfils the promise of his genes and acolytes and
ushers in a Congress renaissance, he will be seen as the
baton-bearer who provided the smooth transition. A footnote
in an astonishing family saga. But if we slide into a
mish-mash politics of messy coalitions, contesting identities,
narrow claims, and governance anarchy, then he will be
fondly remembered as the last of the sane giants.
So what does he possibly see when he looks into
He probably sees a sincere, hardworking man who rode
every accident of history with humility and gratitude. He
probably sees someone truly exceptional, not great. He
probably sees more decency than courage, more willingness
than will. As the image shimmers, he sees there is a vision,
but perhaps in need of some expansion and refurbishing. He
turns to catch his profile. The nose and the jaw: well, they
belong to both master and follower. He looks into his eyes,
and then over his shoulder. He lets out his breath. Actually,
he’s done okay. Given the circumstances, as well as he could.
And if there is a second chance, he would certainly work
harder at doing better.