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Manmohan is man of the moment

After the trust vote, Manmohan Singh is very different from the man whom critics have repeatedly described as “India’s weakest prime minister ever”. Pankaj Vohra writes.

delhi Updated: Jul 24, 2008 15:35 IST
Pankaj Vohra

Leader of the Opposition LK Advani once called him nikamma (useless), the Leftists said he was “America’s agent,” and his own party made an attempt two years ago to weaken him by floating the idea of a deputy prime minister.

Dr Manmohan Singh was seen as a timid, novice politician who suffered a humiliating defeat from South Delhi in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls.

The Parliament vote that failed to throw Manmohan Singh out of power has succeeded in giving India a new prime minister and he is very different from the man whom critics have over the past four-and-a-half years repeatedly described as “India’s weakest prime minister ever”.

The defining images of the confidence vote in the Parliament came at the end of day 1 and the beginning of day 2 of the debate. Manmohan Singh, his stride purposeful and smile self-assured, strode up to the clutch of lensmen gathered outside the house, lifted his fingers in a V, and followed it up with a thumbs-up. In Parliament he laid into his opponents, using language he never had before.

It was not a Manmohan Singh that critics believed existed, and, to be fair, India was familiar with.

From long before he became PM, Singh has suffered in silence the barbs thrown at him.

After PV Narasimha Rao made Singh finance minister in 1991, Rao’s predecessor Chandrashekhar criticised the choice.

When reminded that he too had appointed Singh as an adviser, Chandrashekhar said derisively: “Aaloo katne ke liye chakoo kharida tha, par usse koi heart surgery karni shuroo kar de to main kya kahoon?” (I’d bought a knife to chop potatoes… What can I do if someone starts using it for heart surgery?)

On Tuesday, Chandrashekhar’s vegetable knife turned into a scimitar that scythed through challenges left and right.

Victory had come at the end of a long, bitter battle that had established Singh as a man of great conviction and steely resolve. He had humbled the Left, given Advani a mouthful, and silenced all his critics. As the debate ended, India could not have missed the difference between its prime minister and the man who hopes to replace him: Singh, who got his own party and allies to back him on what he was convinced was good for India, and Advani, who had failed to control his own MPs, eight of whom voted in favour of the nuclear deal. Said Prof VP Dutt, political scientist and a former vice-chancellor of DU: “Manmohan Singh has come out cleverer than all his detractors. He has achieved this by remaining dignified and restrained. For the first time in the history of Parliament, the PM was not allowed to speak. But he has come out victorious.”

M.L. Fotedar, Singh’s colleague in the Rao government, said: “He has great courage. His politics is honest, and he does not hesitate to act when he sees something in national interest. He was seen initially as an economist but he has proved to be a very successful Prime Minister who now enjoys the support not only of Parliament but of the entire Nation.”

On Tuesday night, Manmohan Singh took the final leap that could see him as the mascot of his party in the coming Lok Sabha elections.