It was a casual question from Pertie but it brought back a cascade of memories. “Was Dr Manmohan Singh always like this?”, he asked. I don’t know what prompted the question, but the answer is no. Very definitely not.
Of course, the good Doctor was always shy, self-effacing, soft-spoken and gentle. That’s his character. I don’t recall him ever raising his voice or even speaking crossly. That’s simply not his style.
Yet the Dr Manmohan Singh I first met and got to know in the 1990s was not uncommunicative. He was happy to express his thoughts, willing to give interviews, even prepared to engage in civilised debate.
Becoming prime minister inexplicably changed that. I don’t know why it happened but its driven him into a shell. He was never gregarious but now he’s become silent. He was always thoughtful but now he’s stopped sharing his thinking. He used to be happy to explain and, if need be, defend. Now he lets others do it regardless of how well or dismally they perform.
I remember a series of interviews for Eyewitness, a video magazine the Hindustan Times used to produce, where Dr Manmohan Singh spoke expansively and engagingly about issues like economic development, leadership, India’s political direction (or lack of) and, of course, such polemical subjects as the budget, often delivered earlier that same day.
His candour and sincerity were deeply convincing. You felt in safe hands. You accepted he knew what he was saying. A feeling that was strengthened by his convincing response to criticism and, of course, his willingness to face it.
That’s really what’s changed. After he became prime minister we no longer know what he is thinking, feeling or how he responds to criticism. His self-imposed silence cuts him off. The prime ministership has made him inaccessible. His refusal to talk has made him unfathomable. And when one doesn’t know what to think you often end up thinking the worst.
In his early years as prime minister I made an attempt to remind him of the sort of person he had been as finance minister and, later, leader of the Opposition. I even sent him VHS tapes of interviews where I thought he had struck a chord and which, if repeated, would have a similar impact. He didn’t respond.
I may be wrong, but I believe how we view the prime minister today would be very different if he had used opportunities to communicate regularly, to explain or, at least, share his thinking, to respond to criticism, and let us experience, perhaps admire, his gentle, thoughtful personality.
The paradox is that in shutting this off from us he denied himself not just the best promotion for himself but also the best defence against his critics.
What I can’t understand is why he did this? I know for a fact that as his press adviser Sanjaya Baru tried hard to breach the wall of silence he constructed around himself. So it’s not that he lacked good advice.
Perhaps he harbours a mistaken notion of how a prime minister must behave? Perhaps he was following Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ill-advised precedent? Or perhaps he simply didn’t have the time? But whatever the explanation not only is it unconvincing it also doesn’t address the fact silence is a terrible mistake.
Now, as he approaches the end of his tenure as prime minister, he’s bound to reflect on this. The sad but inescapable truth is he has only himself to blame.
Views expressed by the author are personal