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Raise a glass to the PM’s health

The nation was concerned about a good man’s health. He also happens to be the prime minister. Khushwant Singh elaborates.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:47 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

The nation-wide concern over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s health after his heart surgery reminded me of the popular response to Amitabh Bachchan’s hospitalisation after he was seriously injured during the shooting of a film. Large crowds gathered in front of Bachchan’s hospital to wish him speedy recovery, prayers were offered in places of worship to propitiate divinity and get him back on screen.

This was also evident on a large scale in the case of Manmohan Singh. Both had won their way into the hearts of the common people; one by his good looks and talent for acting, the other for his ability, integrity and self-effacing humility. Both had acquired stellar status in their respective roles. And in both cases, we saw people who used the occasion to draw media attention to themselves. By now we recognise these types and spit on their faces.

In the case of Manmohan Singh, just about every Indian was worried because he felt that his or her own future and that of the country were at stake unless Singh was back in his prime ministerial chair guiding the destiny of the nation.
Among them, I am sure, is his chief critic and aspirant to his post, L.K. Advani. Not long ago he had described Manmohan Singh as a nikamma (useless) PM. He too must have realised that the aam admi does not share his views, and regards Singh
as very useful and irreplaceable.

Manmohan Singh’s acceptance as a national leader needs analysing. He had chosen teaching, not politics, as his career. He has little charisma.

He’s not a great orator. He has no constituency from where he can be assured of being elected to the Lok Sabha. He tried New Delhi and lost. He has been elected to the Rajya Sabha from Guwahati where he has no base.

So why did Sonia Gandhi, as president of the Congress, pick him and not any other prominent member in her party to be prime minister?

I think the answer is because Manmohan had acquired a Gandhian image of one who stuck to the truth, never promoted himself, had no lust for power or money, was above petty factionalism, intrigue and, above all, for his abiding humility.

There is not a breath of scandal about his private or public life. He has never promoted any relation or friend, which is the dharma of most of other politicians, and has never tainted any of his appointments. He is also close to Gandhi in his abstemious habits: teetotaler, non-smoker and lives on a simple diet of dal-roti. Sonia Gandhi made a very wise choice.

I lay no claim to being close to Manmohan Singh. But when I heard that he had been admitted in hospital and a team of heart surgeons had been flown in from Mumbai to operate on him, I was beset with anxiety.

The next evening when I heard that the heart surgery had gone well and he would be back home in a few days, I celebrated the news in my customary manner: I raised my glass of single malt Scotch and proposed a toast for him: “Here’s one wishing you good health.”

Twice as good
I was trying to recollect how many creative Indian couples I have known where both man and woman have won renown in their own fields. I could only think of two: Arundhati Roy, the novelist, and her partner Pradip Krishen, film-maker and author of Trees of Delhi; and the Jhabvalas. Arundhati is frequently in the news for championing lost causes and writing articles for journals. Pradip’s book on the greenery of Delhi is — or should be — by everyone’s bedside.

The Jhabvalas migrated to the United States and only visit Delhi for a week or two in spring. In their earlier years, they were the centre of attention wherever they went. Jhab, as he was known to his friends, was an architect who ended up as head of the School of Architecture. His wife Ruth Prawer shot to fame as a novelist. Her Heat and Dust won the Booker Prize. Many of her stories were made into films by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.

The couple was also the first to organise friends to protect Nirad C. Chaudhuri from being persecuted by the government. Then suddenly, Ruth decided she had had enough of Delhi and India, and preferred living in New York. They disappeared from the scene.

Unknown to me (I was one of their circle), Jhab, besides being an architect, also indulged in art. He made pen and ink drawings of ancient monuments of Delhi that were published by Ravi Dayal. In New York he made similar drawings of buildings in the metropolis. Needless to say, Delhi’s monuments are far more pleasing to the eye than New York’s skyscrapers that are just huge walls punctured by hundreds of windows and zig-sags of fire-escapes. The contrast is telling and very beautiful.

Now we have another Jhabwala portfolio of paintings Old Delhi-New York: Personal View (Roli Books). It makes an ideal gift for art-lovers.

Prime Minister Modi
India Inc has anointed him as prime minister
For, none can rule the country better,
None can provide better atmosphere
For ethnic cleansing, or for that matter
Selective arson, sponsored killing,
Hysteria and hatred, which God willing
Will ensure total peace, eternal security
So vital for industrial activity,
And make Narendra Modi
An ideal prime minister of the country,
Twenty-fold as powerful and bold
And leave Advani shivering in the cold.
(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, New Delhi)

First Published: Feb 06, 2009 21:09 IST