Fate can work in strange ways. I must have spent a year trying to persuade Dr Manmohan Singh to give me an interview without even the slightest flicker of success. I even dropped in to meet him in the hope that a personal touch might work. But I was wrong. Nothing that I tried could pierce the tight veil of his privacy.
Last week I unexpectedly hit paydirt. My colleague Vishal Pant suggested I should ask if he was willing to speak about APJ Abdul Kalam. Neither of us expected he would agree. However, I still rang, because that’s what journalists do, and to my astonishment — and, indeed, delight — the good Doctor said yes.
The meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh that followed made me aware of the sterling qualities we admired so much in 2004 and which, since then, events have steadily pushed out of our mind. He is a true gentleman. I mean that as a fulsome compliment because today very few people are. Worse, it’s a quality we no longer respect as much as our grandparents did. Indeed, we barely understand the term.
Three things immediately become apparent when you meet Dr Manmohan Singh. He is unassuming. You don’t feel you are in the presence of a man who served as prime minister for 10 long years. He is also gentle and soft-spoken. The stentorian manner that one associates with great power is altogether missing. But, most importantly of all, there is an evident and easily discernible sincerity in everything he says. His language is measured, precise and the opposite of hyperbole. It doesn’t make for headlines. It has, however, the flavour of truth. I find that more appealing.
In this respect Dr Manmohan Singh is very similar to Dr Kalam, the man he agreed to speak about. Dr Kalam was more informal, friendlier in his manner, and obviously caring in his style. There was also a mischievous glint in his eyes and a constantly playful smile on his lips. You won’t find any of that in Dr Manmohan Singh. But this is just the superficial appearance of two different men. It hides rather than reveals key truths.
What the two share in common is their beguiling lack of consciousness of position and power. They are matter-of-fact and unassuming. More than that, their presence is reassuring. Whilst other important people make you awkward, if not uncomfortable, these two doctors put you completely at ease.
Of Dr Kalam it’s undoubtedly true that his faults, such as they were, were buried with him. When he died we did not recall the unconstitutional dismissal of the Bihar assembly, even when he was in Russia. Nor that he is believed to have tried for a second term as president, which some say he would have accepted had it been on offer. When we eulogise a man we admire we show no inclination to mention his small faults. That’s just the way we are.
The opposite, sadly, seems true of Dr Manmohan Singh, at least for now. When we turn against a man we once admired we only remember his faults and, then, we magnify them. That’s also the way we are.
My guess is that history will even out this difference between the two doctors. When it’s written without passion, but with objectivity and balance, it will be a lot kinder to Dr Manmohan Singh. And I would venture to suggest it won’t be as adulatory of Dr Kalam.
The views expressed are personal.