It may seem incongruous to say today, but there was a time when one found Manmohan Singh’s silence a mark of quiet dignity. In this age of noise, where everything from Parliament to television studios thrive on high decibel politics, Dr Singh was seen to be a reassuring bridge to an earlier era where the tone was more measured.
I still remember interviewing Dr Singh in 1999, just ahead of him contesting a Lok Sabha election for the first, and as it later transpired, the only time. There was no manufactured hype surrounding his campaign: no shrill rhetoric, no cheering sycophants, no screaming banners. Dr Singh appeared most comfortable when we sat in his personal library, away from the lights and cameras. It was his grandson’s birthday. I recall asking him if we could shoot the family celebrations. “No family please”, was his firm but polite response. We had missed a potential photo-op, but I genuinely respected the zealous manner in which he chose to guard his privacy.
Sadly, 14 years later, the very qualities that one found appealing in Dr Singh have now returned to haunt him. His silence is now construed as weakness, his limited communication seems evidence of a leader with much to hide, and the ‘privacy’ argument is now seen as a sign of political non-accountability. Yes, he still admirably keeps his family away from the charmed power circle and is perhaps the only Indian prime minister who can seriously claim that no one in his immediate family has gained from his being in high office. But for that fact, the rest is now history: from being catapulted to prime ministership on the strength of his personal honesty, he is now being lampooned as a timid leader who heads perhaps the country’s most scam-tainted government.
Indeed, for a long time, the sense was that the prime minister was a helpless ‘victim’ of coalition politics. What could he do if the DMK insisted on having its way with key portfolios while every other ally sought its pound of flesh? Even if his ministers were corrupt, the prime minister most certainly was not. To therefore target him was unfair: a coalition government by its very nature was a government of compromise and its survival was predicated on a willingness to make those compromises.
Unfortunately it is now becoming increasingly apparent that in UPA 2, the obsession with survival has come at a very heavy cost, not just to the credibility of the ruling arrangement, but to the prime minister’s own personal reputation. For example, if Dr Singh had put his foot down in May 2009 and insisted that Mr Raja be kept out of the telecom ministry, it might have led the DMK to stay out of government, but would have sent out a clear message that the prime minister meant business. Remember this was a period when the prime minister having just won a tough re-election had finally acquired some political muscle. By caving in to DMK pressure at a moment of his greatest triumph, Manmohan Singh unfortunately lost the moral high ground, perhaps forever.
Since then, there has been a steady, but inexorable decline in Dr Singh’s political and moral authority. Instead of being seen as a man of integrity, he has now been branded a political survivor, someone who will allow his instincts for self-preservation to rule over all else. How else does one explain the most recent coal controversy? The country’s top law officers are accused of lying to the court, the law minister is accused of having tried to influence a CBI investigation, and yet, the prime minister is seen to bear no responsibility. It is almost as if the law minister and his officials are being used, as alleged by the Opposition, as a shield to protect the prime minister. Let us not forget the prime minister was the coal minister at the time of the allotments; a joint secretary in the prime minister’s office was present at a meeting when the draft report was discussed with CBI officials; and the law minister was a handpicked nominee of Dr Singh. Can, in such circumstances, the prime minister avoid any responsibility for what marks a new low in the fraught relationship between the Centre and the CBI?
Forget for a moment the demand of the BJP for the prime minister to resign. It is yet another reflex action designed to raise the political stakes ahead of elections. But shouldn’t the prime minister at least provide a detailed explanation of the role of his office in this rather dubious episode? Or are we to see a repeat of the 2G-JPC charade where the prime minister first offered to appear before the body (in response to my question at an editors meet in February 2011), and then conveniently chose to allow his officials to carry the burden of an explanation?
The real tragedy is that Dr Singh’s story is, in many ways, so inspirational for those who believe that there is still space in public life for the middle class values of hard work and scholarship. Every time he narrates his life story of studying under candlelight in Gah and then working his way to Oxbridge and the Reserve Bank of India, you cannot but feel proud at a great Indian tale of upward mobility.
But there is another inescapable middle class value that the prime minister must now show: it’s called moral courage in the face of adversity. That would come if the prime minister finally realises that he isn’t a secretary in the government of India but a chief executive of the Indian state. As a bureaucrat, silence might have been a compulsion. As a prime minister, it has become a curse. Even if late in the day, it is time for Dr Singh to stand up and, yes, speak out.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal