Guest Column| Dr Manmohan Singh: History will be kinder to gentle PM - Hindustan Times
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Guest Column| Dr Manmohan Singh: History will be kinder to gentle PM

ByHarcharan Bains
Apr 05, 2024 01:59 PM IST

When historians look back with the benefit of objectivity which only distances in time facilitate, the role played by this gentle and suave leveller, who retired from the Rajya Sabha this week after a 33-year tenure, will receive the attention and the credit that he fully deserves.

Writing about politicians always carries the risk of bias one way or another. As a subject of any such writing, former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh provides an exception with a persona that swims as gently and smoothly as fragrance above rocky terrains, deserts and lilac gardens alike – one of the few who sounds more endearing the more you criticise or oppose him. Many of us are tempted to place Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri or Atal Bihari Vajpayee above him for their contribution to taking the roots of Indian democracy deep and smoothening out the rough edges in India’s incomprehensible diversity.

Manmohan Singh, 91, served as the Prime Minister of India from 2004-14. A noted economist, academician and bureaucrat, the Congress leader retired from the Rajya Sabha this week after a 33-year tenure. (HT file photo)
Manmohan Singh, 91, served as the Prime Minister of India from 2004-14. A noted economist, academician and bureaucrat, the Congress leader retired from the Rajya Sabha this week after a 33-year tenure. (HT file photo)

But when historians look back with the benefit of objectivity which only distances in time facilitate, the role played by this gentle and suave leveller, who retired from the Rajya Sabha this week after a 33-year tenure, will receive the attention and the credit that he fully deserves.

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Navigating nation in turbulent times

In my role as aide to the tallest regional leader of his times, Sardar Parkash Singh Badal, I had the occasion to interact with almost all of India’s “men of destiny” of his times. This included the critical ’90s.

At home and abroad, those were not the easiest of years for the country. It required men of finesse and self-effacing commitment to navigate the nation across turbulent waters in international politics. But we sometimes forget how the country revealed almost a magical knack of finding men of gentle and low personal profile and placing them into positions of eminence that required high-profile initiatives. Inder Kumar Gujral and Dr Manmohan Singh were the best examples of this knack. Both men of unimpeachable integrity, they were called upon to handle the harness in the harshest political times of strategic global shifts in almost every sphere. India was in serious danger of being left out of the spirit of the age.

Defying Punjabi stereotype

Dealing with this challenge required high action with low sound-bytes. It was the queerest of coincidences that the two men at India’s helm at that time belonged to a state and a culture not exactly famous for low profiles, undertones or subtlety. Both came from a region famous for its penchant for high notes and high profiles. From poetry to politics, from music to marriages, from culture to cuisine, their home state Punjab flaunts a snobbish distaste for subtlety, diplomacy and mathematics. And these were just the virtues required for anyone holding the top job in the country in those troubled times of strategic and economic global transition. Both men performed their jobs with a the kind of suave perfection which still keeps everyone in their home state puzzled over how could anyone from amongst them defy the local stereotype to surprise the world.

The ’90s were indeed a troubled era followed by another in the millennia. But ‘Cometh the man, cometh the hour’. Out of nowhere and from well outside the national political galleries emerged Dr Manmohan Singh – a man who looked too gentle to handle the hurly burly of ruthless national and international politics. By the time he ended his tenure, the entire world, except his own countrymen, had risen to give him a rousing applause.

Former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal calling on then PM Manmohan Singh. (PTI file photo)
Former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal calling on then PM Manmohan Singh. (PTI file photo)

Silent mutual respect

But in Dr Singh’s own home state, there was one man who was so enamoured of him that he was willing to risk his own political stock in the midst of a crucial election to demonstrate his admiration for the man. We were campaigning in Amritsar in January of 2009 when I informed Badal sa’ab about Dr Manmohan Singh’s sudden admission to AIIMS for cardiac surgery. Mr Badal stopped the campaign midway and immediately rushed to circuit house and put in a call to the PM’s staff. In no time, he rang up the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) office, requesting to start ‘akhand path’ to pray for Dr Singh’s speedy recovery.

This was unprecedented in the Indian national political stream – out of his concern for a key political opponent. Dr Singh and Mr Badal were to campaign against each other in Punjab for that crucial Lok Sabha poll. The Shiromani Akali Dal had an alliance with the BJP at that time. Mr Badal visited Shri Harmandar Sahib everyday of the ‘path’. He never mentioned this to Dr Singh. Mr Badal’s relations with Dr Singh flowed from a silent mutual respect for each other. Mr Badal in fact adored Dr Singh for his simplicity and integrity.

Decisive intervention

There was talk of the Haryana Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (HSGPC) being set up at that time. The Congress was in power at the Centre and in Haryana. Mr Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal called on Dr Singh, who was the only one who could have got the move shelved. I recall the gentlest of smiles on Dr Singh’s face at the end of the Akali pleadings. Suddenly, his face turned grim. “This is serious. But don’t worry. As long as I am in this job, this won’t happen.” And, it didn’t. By the way, Dr Manmohan Singh’s father had gone to jail during the Morcha that led to the setting up of the SGPC.

When I met him at one of the official functions later, I walked across to pay regards to him and said, “Mr Badal is extremely touched by your decisive intervention.” He gave me a gentle look, softly held my hand and, refusing to take credit, said, “I did what anyone in my shoes would have done.”

Some have called Dr Manmohan Singh an accidental Prime Minister. I think he was the gentle surgeon who saved the country from many near-fatal accidents. As he said, “History may be kinder to me than the media has been.” I couldn’t agree more. bains.bains@gmail.com

Harcharan Bains. (HT file)
Harcharan Bains. (HT file)

The writer is a freelance contributor. Views expressed are personal.

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