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The tragic hero in a Greek tragedy

If reforming India iconised Manmohan Singh, his conformism and ‘intellectual dishonesty’ became his tragic flaws.

ht view Updated: Jan 17, 2014 00:36 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conviction that history would be kind to him makes one wonder if Singh is seized of the plurality of history and its vulnerability to many interpretations. There are, for instance, Marxist history, subaltern history or worse, revisionist history. Take the claim that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government helped Indira Gandhi plan the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984 to flush out militants from it, an operation that left more than 1,000 people dead.

Besides, history also takes into account contemporary documents — archival records including media reportage, which Singh considers incriminating — to deliver judgments that, by no means, could be called final.

What can be seen on questions of historical judgment is that countries are shaped not just by impersonal economic forces and geography — no matter how important they are — but by choices made by governments and their people. The financial crisis that started in 2007 in America and exploded around the world in 2008 was a reminder that our economic future is not determined by some huge, uncontrollable, impersonal forces but by human hands.

What is curious is that while China’s leadership decided to start liberalising its economy more or less of its own accord and at a time of its choosing, it took a crisis to get a comparable movement in India. A small group of reformers clustered around Manmohan Singh, the Union finance minister who a decade later would become prime minister, seized the opportunity of a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991. Had India not been on the verge of bankruptcy in 1991, one wonders if sweeping reforms would have been undertaken at all. What is significant is that while the expedient and somewhat desperate choices made out of a crisis rendered it into a virtue, what followed under Singh’s last-term regime, was also an outcome of an ill assortment of choices gone wrong.

Would history be fair to attribute the credit of financial reforms in 1991 to Manmohan Singh, or to PV Narasimha Rao, as whose chieftain Singh worked? Or should the actual blame for the stagnation that has hit country on the reforms front, as NR Narayana Murthy has suggested, be put on the dual leadership structure of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi? Has Singh been rendered ineffectual, or is he more sinned against than sinning? History would surely judge him as much for ushering in economic reforms as for wasting his remit.

And Singh’s angst against the media is ahistorical too. It is sad to see the fall from grace of Singh who was once described as ‘one of the world’s most revered leaders’ and ‘a man of uncommon decency and grace’, by The Independent. In 2010, Newsweek magazine recognised him as a world leader who is respected by other heads of state. The article quoted Mohamed ElBaradei, who remarked that Singh is “the model of what a political leader should be”. Forbes magazine described Singh as being “universally praised as India’s best prime minister since Nehru” — a refrain echoed by Khushwant Singh who once lauded Singh as the best prime minister India has had, even rating him higher than Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is ironical that Singh, whose personal integrity and honesty, are viewed as being above board, is seen to preside over some of the worse cases of big-ticket corruption happening during his regime. If reforming India iconised him to the world, his conformism and perhaps his ‘timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty’ — to borrow social historian Ramachandra Guha’s words describing him — became his tragic flaws. And if corruption was an integral and intractable part of the ‘licence-permit raj’ of Nehruvian socialism, the prospect of unbridled financial prosperity in Singh’s time, thanks to the liberalised free market economy, seemed to mean plundering of natural resources, aptly described as a kind of ‘insider trading’ between politicians and vested interests. Maybe, Singh wants to see himself as a tragic hero of a Greek tragedy.

Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal