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Follower or leader?

The economist PM was successful with his foreign policy. He took a firm and bold stand over the Indo-US nuclear deal, which won support from journalists and could be remembered as his big achievement, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: May 17, 2009 02:42 IST

Twenty-four hours can change Indian politics. Even as late as Friday night an assessment of Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership felt like an unintended farewell. By Saturday that had changed and this Sunday morning, Singh could be poised to start another term as PM. So how will history remember the last five years?

The opinion of journalists, I have to admit, is hardly authoritative or even lasting. Indeed, the judgment of one’s contemporaries is often overturned by later generations. But for now it’s all we have. So, with a certain measure of hesitation and a loud note of caution, let’s venture forth. That Singh was a good man — I use the past tense only to emphasise I’m discussing the five years that are over — is indisputable. Neither L.K. Advani nor Prakash Karat would disagree. Both his charm and his moral integrity were unquestionable.

The paradox is he presided over a cabinet that hardly reflected his virtues. The following were chargesheeted and yet appointed and retained as ministers: Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Taslimuddin, Jaiprakash Yadav, Fatmi. Taslimuddin alone faced nine serious charges. Deve Gowda found him unacceptable. Manmohan Singh chose to live with him. There was even a period when Soren and Yadav were wanted by the police, became absconders but did not resign.

Beyond this, there were swirling rumours about ministers who used office to make personal fortunes. The most mentioned was the DMK contingent. Did Manmohan Singh, as PM, know? Did he investigate and find the allegations false? His silence left one guessing. History is bound to be more outspoken.

As PM, Manmohan Singh gave India four years of unprecedented 9 per cent economic growth. But the policy of liberalisation and reform, that won him accolades as Finance Minister, was only feebly attempted and, once rebuffed by the Left, forgotten and ignored. This includes disinvestment, pension and banking reforms, raising insurance caps, easier labour laws and the opening up of retail trade. History may conclude that as PM, Singh identified with a different vision of the economy.

In the last five years, Singh attempted to create a social welfare safety net. The NREGA, the Rs 70,000 crore farm loan waiver, the Rural Health Mission and much of Bharat Nirman falls into this category. Conceptually these measures are difficult to quarrel with. The question was whether in practice they made a difference. Today’s results suggest they’ve brought the Congress unpredicted benefits in UP. If that’s borne out the criticism that the money did not reach those it was intended for could be invalidated.

The economist PM was successful with his foreign policy. He took a firm and bold stand over the Indo-US nuclear deal, which won support from journalists and could be remembered as his big achievement. In pushing it through Parliament, he showed decisiveness, courage and a capacity for manipulation. If the first two qualities were contemporaneously admired, history may conclude differently of the third.

Pakistan, however, remained a promise unfulfilled. No doubt events, both in Islamabad and Mumbai, intervened but the question historians will grapple with is did Singh forego an opportunity to sort out Kashmir when Musharraf was in the ascendant? Omar Abdullah believes he did.

Finally, there’s the question Advani has popularised and which has ruffled Singh’s sangfroid: was he the weakest PM India has had? This is difficult not just because it’s contentious. It’s also less than straightforward and we probably don’t know enough.

That he was the first PM who was not the popular choice of his party is true. That he was also the first to accept the pre-eminence of his party president is indisputable. But surely weakness comprises more than this? We need to know how he handled his cabinet, his Left allies and his party president. How often did they force their views on him? Or, to put it simply, did he lead or did he follow?

Do weak PMS get re-elected?