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Manmohan's dignity mistaken for subservience

Dr Manmohan Singh doesn’t leave office with hosannas ringing in the air. The sighs of relief are, undoubtedly, louder. Yet that should not blind us to his virtuous qualities, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: May 18, 2014 22:10 IST

Only Pertie could have thought of this question and it took me by surprise, as he knew it would. "What will you miss about Dr Manmohan Singh?"

Now, Dr Manmohan Singh doesn’t leave office with hosannas ringing in the air. The sighs of relief are, undoubtedly, louder. Yet that should not blind us to his virtuous qualities. It is of these that Pertie was asking. Not his political achievements or his electoral longevity. Not even the high rate of growth he presided over and the nuclear deal he delivered. All of that falls into the realm of the Prime Minister. Pertie wanted to know about the man.

However, Pertie’s question carried a second twist in its tail. Most of us have considered this issue the other way round. We know what we won’t miss. In other words, our thoughts are on the changes that would be welcome. Pertie, because he likes being contrary, was asking about the qualities we admired.

Watch: The legacy of Manmohan Singh: How will history judge him?

I would sum them up in two simple words: I’ll miss Dr Manmohan Singh’s quiet dignity. No matter from what vantage point you view him, I believe it’s this quality that stands out.

As head of government he was never strident or aggressive. He didn’t hog the news or demand the last word. He made his point quietly. He avoided polemics. He spoke in gentle metaphors. It might not have been memorable. It may not even have been effective. But it was always dignified.

In Parliament his ramrod straight posture symbolised his rectitude. There was no drama in his performance, no rhetoric in his speeches and precious little repartee in his response. He took praise and, more frequently, obloquy in his stride. Both left him unaffected. He remained dignified.

Even embattled he didn’t betray anxiety. He never lost his poise. His face, in fact, showed no emotion at all. You could accuse him of detachment or disassociation. You could say he was insensitive to the crisis surrounding him. Yet those criticisms do not detract from the calm dignity with which he weathered the many storms that buffeted him.

Let me illustrate my point. I can’t think of a single long-serving prime minister who, in public, was never angry or arrogant, whose language was never rude or sarcastic, whose behaviour was never improper or insensitive. But I can’t think of a moment when that could be said of Dr Manmohan Singh. Do you remember him angry? Haughty? Rude? Loud? Or just behaving badly?

I certainly don’t. Actually, the mere fact I’m asking the question seems to prove my point.

This is the quiet dignity we took for granted. Often we didn’t respect it. Many times we derided it. We saw in it submissiveness and subservience. A lack of spine.

We identified it as the quality of a puppet. Of a man who consciously chose not to speak because he didn’t want to contradict. Of a man who refused to stand up because he knew he would be pushed down. We saw Dr Manmohan Singh’s quiet dignity as camouflage for his invidious predicament.

Maybe it was. But it was a lot more as well. It was a quality of the heart and mind that rarely, if ever, got the praise it deserves.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and I’m sure many of us will miss his quiet dignity. It may not be a great legacy for a prime minister. It is, however, testament to an honourable man.

The views expressed by the author are personal