How Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 28, 2015 13:10 IST

Vir Sanghvi's Mandate looks at politics and elections since '71. An excerpt on Manmohan Singh.

In 2004, India was doing extraordinarily well. The middle class had begun to look to the West for its reference points. Foreign companies rushed to invest in the economy. Commentators removed the old hyphenation of India-Pakistan and began a new one: India-China. The BJP government of AB Vajpayee seemed popular...

Almost every poll predicted an overall majority for the BJP if an election were to be called and the party agreed with this assessment. It regarded the Congress as a useless and fragmented opposition led by a woman who Vajpayee had already defeated twice at the polls...

Sonia Gandhi had finally entered politics in 1998... she joined politics and became party president... Though all through the glory days of the Vajpayee government, the Congress kept a low profile, not doing particularly well in assembly elections and maintaining a restrained parliamentary presence.

So when the BJP saw the results of opinion polls that predicted a two-thirds majority, it was so delighted, it even advanced the election by a few months. India was shining and so would the election results.

... Till the very end it (the BJP) remained confident of victory. ...But when the results began streaming in, the pollsters were left red-faced. The BJP had slumped from 182 seats to 138 seats. The Congress had risen from 114 to 145 seats. If it got the support of a few allies, then there was no problem: the Congress would form the next government. A delighted but still strangely thoughtful Sonia set about putting her coalition in place. The Left jumped on board. So did many allies. ... When the coalition was in place and the Congress was ready to take office, Sonia pulled a surprise. She issued a statement in which she said she had listened to her inner voice and decided that she would not be prime minister. ...What follows next is speculation. But two different sources told me that when Sonia went to see President KR Narayanan in 1999 during the turmoil that followed Vajpayee's defeat in the confidence vote, she told him that she did not wish to be prime minister. One source, RD Pradhan, who was her principal aide at the time, was clear: even in 1999, she did not want the job. My second source was President KR Narayanan who told me that she had asked him to swear Manmohan Singh in once the coalition had gathered the numbers. Of course, that never happened.

Did Manmohan Singh know this? Opinions are divided and the man himself is decidedly shifty on the subject.

There's no doubt he was dying to become prime minister.

In 1997, when Deve Gowda's government tottered, he had gently put it about that he was available for the job. I'd asked him if he wanted to be prime minister and he had replied. 'Who doesn't want to be PM?' To his credit, when he did become Prime Minister in 2004, he reminded me of that conversation. My guess is that Sonia told him in 1999 that he was her choice. And after that, when he knew that the job was within his reach - even if things had not worked out in 1999 - he decided to play it cool. A year later, when I asked him about it, this time on TV, he was evasive. 'Well, Mrs Gandhi has said that the party will take the decision,' he said.

Five years later, when the Congress had beaten the odds and made it to office, Sonia turned to Manmohan once again. This time he was ready. I remember watching him go to 10 Janpath, eyes gleaming with excitement, hands trembling with anticipation, eager to become Sonia's nominee for the job. But the Congress was not ready. Congressmen and women wept and begged Sonia to reconsider. She refused point-blank. Manmohan Singh was her choice, she said, and she would not be swayed.

What Sonia Gandhi was proposing was unprecedented. She wanted an arrangement whereby she would continue as Congress President and would handle relations with the allies, an important component of the running of any coalition. Manmohan Singh, on the other hand, would have a free hand when it came to the government. ...nobody could deny... that it was going to be difficult to make the arrangement work. There were just too many problems.

The first was the party. Put simply, nobody in the Congress had any enthusiasm for a Manmohan Singh prime ministership. He was not well-liked, was seen as a creation of the hated Narasimha Rao and hardcore politicians had contempt for his lack of political skills. He had only ever stood for election to the Lok Sabha once. And he'd been soundly defeated...

The second problem was with the allies... But Manmohan Singh had his admirers. Most people who did not know him well regarded him as a humble, decent, apolitical figure who had no great ambition...

Many in the middle class saw him as the father of India's liberalisation and believed that he would now completely unshackle the economy. So when Manmohan Singh took office, the general reaction was overwhelmingly favourable.

Though we did not see it then, it seems clear in retrospect, that the seeds for the fall of the United Progressive Alliance or UPA were sown in the very first years of the government.

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