Has he overstayed his welcome? That question, cruel as it is, dominates any objective assessment of Manmohan Singh’s decade in power.
The answer is entirely self-evident.
Had the PM shown the sagacity to quit at the peak of his popularity in 2009 or mid way when corruption scandals swallowed his capacity to commandeer a clean government or even towards the near-end when Rahul Gandhi’s outburst against a patently flawed ordinance clearly mocked the last vestiges of his personal authority, he may still have been remembered differently.
Instead, his assertion — "I never thought of resigning" — (at a press conference that is in the news less for what he said and more for the fact that it took place at all) only furthered the impression of a politician more attached to power than to anything else.
At the media interaction, Singh repeated his claim to personal integrity — "I’ve never used this post to enrich myself or my family."
Perfectly true, but what of the others in the government you presided over for 10 years, Mr Prime Minister?
It was his astonishing disassociation between himself and the team he captained that made Singh seem unsporting in defeat at Friday’s press briefing.
The emphasis was on the individual, not the collective. On both the telecom and coal corruption scandals he positioned himself as the one person who had argued in favour of transparent auctions, saying the fact that this was forgotten made him "sad".
In other words, he was unwilling to accept any responsibility — moral or political — for corruption on his watch, by members of his own Cabinet, in a remarkably convenient but unconvincing distancing between the post of PM and his government. The subtext: I didn’t pocket any wheeling-dealing money (completely true) so it’s not my fault (completely false).
What remained unexplained was Singh’s own failure as a leader in containing this corruption, his crisis-driven delayed interventions and the allegations against his own office in a coal scam that saw a law minister lose his job for vetting an investigative report that he never should have been reading, leave alone editing. In an inversion of Harry Truman’s mantra, the PM simply passed the buck on corruption.
Worse still, he sounded as if he did not think corruption was a matter that required urgency of response, saying he had "not had the time" to look at the written charges against Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh made in a letter to him by the BJP’s Leader of Opposition.
The vagueness of that answer was reminiscent of the archetypal UPA response to a corruption allegation — first ignore it and hope that it will go away, then defy it and finally when a political crisis erupts and the damage is done, act on it. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
At the media conference, when asked to describe the best and worst moments in his tenure, the PM said he hadn’t had time to reflect on the lowest point.
I could help him with that. The singular disappointment of Singh’s term as PM has been to make personal decency an exasperatingly inadequate character trait for a man who leads a nation. Being a nice guy is not necessarily the best qualification to be PM. Tragically for him, the PM’s individual integrity has not just become irrelevant; it has become a feeble excuse for everything else that is missing — firmness, articulation, charisma and strength.
Had Singh, even in his twilight months, chosen to communicate with honesty — admitting to some failures, taking responsibility for some mistakes or unveiling even one fresh idea; had he seemed less keen to stay on as PM till the bitter end, there may yet have been some redemption for his legacy.
His choice of the "end of India’s nuclear apartheid" as the centrepiece of his prime ministerial career is telling. Firstly, the fact that his proudest achievement is from his first term underscores the popular impression that there isn’t much in his second term that can be counted as praiseworthy.
Secondly, he forgot to mention that in real terms the Indo-US nuclear deal is still not operational. And lastly, he doesn’t seem to get the real reason why even his critics would be willing to give him some credit for it. Not so much because of the deal itself — most people barely understand the complex fine print of it all — but because for once a politician seemed willing to risk his position for something larger than personal gain. Since then we have never seen as determined a response by the PM to anything.
The only moment of uncharacteristic aggression at his press conference was reserved for Narendra Modi whom he called a "disastrous" choice for prime minister — a more frontal attack than any made by Rahul Gandhi who has till this date never expressed an outright opinion on his principal challenger for 2014.
But because he did not speak of his party’s own record on the 1984 riots with the same passion as he kept for 2002 and because his unusually cutting anger only seems to surface in response to provocations from the BJP — Modi now, Advani in 2009 — the leadership vacuum created by Manmohan Singh has ensured that the Gujarat riots don’t work as a tool of electoral attack.
The PM’s press conference was a missed opportunity.
For those who see a tragedy in his transformation from a good professor who inspired the middle class by seeming like one-of-us to a near-invisible, ineffective national presence, remember the words of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, King Lear to his daughter Cordelia: "Nothing will come of Nothing. Speak Again."
Sadly for him, the PM’s rare press conference was about nothing much.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal