Manmohan Singh deserves a better report card than he got, writes Barkha Dutt | columns | Hindustan Times
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Manmohan Singh deserves a better report card than he got, writes Barkha Dutt

He was that rare entity in Indian politics — a genuinely democratic leader who made space for some dissent and did not personalise media criticism of him. As the second tenure of the UPA descended into chaos and corruption scandals I was among the many journalists who became unsparing in my criticism of his leadership. But not once did he hold that against me or anyone else or clamp down on information routes or reporting access to officials in the Prime Minister’s office

columns Updated: Oct 21, 2017 08:20 IST
What sets Manmohan Singh apart among politicians of his ilk is that he never turned hostile to journalists even when we were brutal in our critique
What sets Manmohan Singh apart among politicians of his ilk is that he never turned hostile to journalists even when we were brutal in our critique(PTI)

This month listening to Manmohan Singh describe Pranab Mukherjee as the “better qualified” candidate for the post of Prime Minister, I remembered something else he had said. “History will be kinder to me than the media,” he had proclaimed in his quintessentially soft-spoken manner.

I think we don’t have to wait for the passage of significant time to accept that he had a point. While there were many things to be greatly disappointed in his government for – and as its leader the buck stopped with him – perhaps we were far too stingy in our praise for what he got right.

Above everything else I think he was that rare entity in Indian politics — a genuinely democratic leader who made space for some dissent and did not personalise media criticism of him. As the second tenure of the UPA descended into chaos and corruption scandals I was among the many journalists who became unsparing in my criticism of his leadership. But not once did he hold that against me or anyone else or clamp down on information routes or reporting access to officials in the Prime Minister’s office.

Through the worst things we said about him – we accused him mostly of not standing up to the corrupt in his cabinet as well as the overweening interference from his party – he continued to be unfailingly civil if we happened to meet him at public events. This is the true test of press freedom — how politicians behave when the media is rough on them. On reflection, Manmohan Singh did not get enough credit from us for largely preserving the institutional autonomy of a free press at least at an individual level. Of course, institutionally, the Congress is yet to wipe its record clean of the stains of the 1970s Emergency. And books and films have been banned on the Congress watch, making it just as culpable as other political parties. It’s also true that Singh was not as personally open to the media as the contemporary information age demands – he did press conferences but avoided interviews – and that is certainly a flaw. But, what sets him apart among politicians of his ilk is that he never turned hostile to journalists even when we were brutal in our critique.

His authentic liberal instincts – perhaps something to do with the fact that he was an academic and technocrat more than a conventional politician – are distinctly different from both the main leaders of his own party as well as the ruling BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, for instance, seem to share a mistrust of the English-speaking media, albeit for different reasons and in different ways. Both believe the media has been less than fair to them and both appear to take criticism very personally. Once you have been critical of either leader on an issue, chances are that they will cease to speak to you. Unlike in the case of Manmohan Singh, in both their cases, this aversion to the media does not spring from diffidence; it comes from a skepticism bordering on near-dislike. And with both Modi and the Gandhi family, those around them take their cue from the top and tend to shut down channels of communication to the media as well. By contrast, during Manmohan Singh’s tenure, we were able to report on the government in a way that we were not able to report on his party.

There were two moments when Singh should have resigned for the sake of personal redemption. One, when he surrendered to party duress on inducting compromised DMK ministers into his cabinet against his preference and two, when Rahul Gandhi tore up an ordinance his government had cleared while he was away in the United States. Yes, the ordinance was unforgivable and was designed to save lawmakers convicted of corruption – like Lalu Prasad Yadav. But by protesting in public and while the PM was on foreign soil, Gandhi sorely undermined Manmohan Singh’s authority.

Had Manmohan Singh asserted his independence and authority – forget history – even the present would have been more than kind to him. To that extent he permitted and enabled some elements of the scathing appraisal he was subjected to. But, with all the flaws of his tenure, we also owe it to him to revise our report card on him. He deserved a better score than we gave him.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal