My flight from John F Kennedy airport in New York landed early morning at Gatwick, London. The connecting flight to New Delhi was in the evening from Heathrow. With 10 hours to spare, I decided to go shopping at Ealing Broadway. I bought a pair of shoes from M&S, a blazer from Next, and after a quick lunch and seeing some friends in Southall, headed to the LHR to catch the flight.
The British Airways business-class seats were on the upper deck of Boeing 747, a wide body jet, very comfortable, and my favourite. I was the first to check in and board. Tired after the long-haul flight from JFK and walking around in Ealing, I was quick to get into sleep. An airhostess wakened me up and asked me to pull the backrest up and fasten the seatbelt for takeoff.
I turned around and was surprised to find the-then finance minister, Dr Mahmohan Singh, seated next. The flight captain came up and requested him to shift to the first class but he refused, saying: "I have paid for the business class and will stay here; thank you." An upright man: was my first impression of him.
His smile at me broke the ice between us. After take-off and cursory greetings, we got talking. Dr Singh was flying back from Washington via London, having accompanied the-then prime minister, PV Narashimha Rao, to the US. Rao's address to the US Congress was a hot topic in the Indian media. What the news channels didn't report was that the PM had refused to attend a press conference, and the press had boycotted his visit. Even the Asian television channels in the US did not cover his tour.
"Sir, how was the US trip?" I asked Dr Singh. "Very good," he replied. "Did you hear the PM's address to the US Congress?" "Yes, Sir," I said. "I was in New York then but I read it in the papers only on the third day, in a small write-up in page three of New York Times: Indian Prime Minister visiting USA." "So, you know the truth," he responded.
In 1991, the economic reforms were on the agenda of the minority Congress government, thanks to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The privatisation of nationalised banks was likely. I asked Dr Singh about it. "It's a political decision, which I cannot take," he said. "I will encourage the entry of private-sector banks and the nationalised banks will either have to improve their working or lose out. Any branch making loss for three years will be shut."
It was a reply from a man not really in command even then, as finance minister. What India needs is a statesman PM, a tall leader, to tide over the political and financial crisis, and not a second-in-command in makeshift political arrangement for the heir apparent. John Milton wrote in a sonnet: "They also serve who only stand and wait." Hopefully, it changes with the second spell of reforms to: "They also served who did and dared."