Manmohan Singh’s third innings

Shekhar Gupta
Saturday, 29 December 2018

He is talking, making sense and India is listening. Rahul Gandhi needs to listen to him, too

Most of the commentators had written Dr Manmohan Singh’s political obituaries nearly five years back. So had I. Did we imagine we will be writing articles about his return as 2018 ends and we enter another election year?

He is no longer the silent ‘Maun Mohan’. He does speak now, although very little, very measured. Usually, just a couple of sentences. But when he does, India listens. Even a routine-and drab as usual-formal speech by him goes viral online. Check social media trends. Anything he says, spreads.

He hasn’t suddenly become an election campaigner for the Congress. But in Parliament and outside, he is now its most weighty voice. See the impact of his short, clinical and firm statement on Urjit Patel’s resignation. Or, his comment at the release of his books earlier this week, where he said that he may have been called a sphinx, but he wasn’t a silent prime minister. He was never afraid to answer questions from the press.

This was brilliantly loaded and skilful political wit, in a ‘Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana’ (aiming somewhere, hitting somewhere else) approach. He used self-deprecation, using an obvious weakness of his own to attack Narendra Modi.

A comeback of this kind isn’t bad for a non-politician at 86. Younger partymen, many of whom dissed him in his second term, plotted a switch to a ‘more political’ prime minister, namely Pranab Mukherjee, ran circles around him, got his decisions rescinded by 10, Janpath or theirs thrust on him, have spent their time in the wilderness writing books. They began seeking him out to release them initially, because he had the time and stature: At least enough to dignify your customary group photo holding the book on stage. Lately, such appearances by him make headlines, ensuring greater press for the book and backing for his party’s politics.

He still isn’t a people’s man. He speaks little and chooses his words carefully. That’s been his style ever since he entered public life. When the first scam (Harshad Mehta) hit the stock markets and his government was under a cloud, all he said in Parliament was, ‘I won’t lose my sleep over the stock market’. 

But when he spoke to defend his government in the vote over the nuclear deal, he unleashed the most defiant lines from Guru Gobind Singh: Deh Shiva var mohe…Nishchay kar apni jeet karoon (Bless me O Shiva… so I may have the strength to fight until my victory). Then he mocked Advani for continuing to live by his astrologer’s promise that he will become prime minister one day.

His second term in 2009 came with higher numbers for his party, counter-intuitively as a reward for his incumbency. People voted him back so resoundingly not because they saw him as a weak or meek leader. He had just risked his government, braved a desertion by the Left, in defence of his philosophical belief that India needed to make a full strategic shift: The real import of the nuclear deal was an embrace of the US as an ally. He was rewarded for being strong. Later, philosophically, when Modi took his policy forward instead of reversing it.

What happened subsequently, I had tracked in detail, including in a 2015 piece when I said he had let himself and his fans (including this columnist) down by not resigning when his party bosses were undermining him and his office. The provocation for that article was the pain at seeing him being questioned by the CBI in connection with a coal scam case. Modi also mocked him in Parliament for claiming to be clean while allowing corruption under his watch with that ‘standing in the shower in a raincoat’ line. He was still a soft target.

So, what changed then?
It was probably demonetisation in the winter of 2016. Manmohan Singh spoke little, but an uncharacteristically cutting and memorable line: ‘Organised loot and systematic plunder.’ This was the first time his own party seems to have realised the weight he still carried. Demonetisation was a sitter for him because economics is his domain. Later, as the economy drifted, professional economists in key positions left, ‘fixing’ of data began, and a sense of crisis grew, his words were sounding prophetic.

In the marketplace of politics, as in any other, product-differentiation is invaluable. One reason he is again being taken seriously is that in this bitter, broken politics, there is a premium on dignity and decency. When Narendra Modi calls Sonia a rent-seeking ‘vidhwa’ (widow) and Rahul Gandhi says “chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman, or the prime minister, is a thief), Manmohan Singh stands out for classiness even in his criticism. He is not the only one. That Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh nearly swung the miracle of a fourth term despite farm strife underlines the premium people now also put on understated humility.

In my ‘Walk the Talk’ interview, I had asked PV Narasimha Rao what did he bring to the table when he had so little charisma, oratory or political weight. ‘I bring solace,’ said the old man. As Manmohan Singh’s political mentor, he would’ve been happy to see himself make the same contribution-at least for his party. Because, if Rao brought solace to a crises-ridden India, Singh is bringing solace and credibility his reviving party needs. There is, however, a big difference between the post-retirement lives of the two former prime ministers. The Congress saw no utility in Rao once power was lost. He was dumped. He fought his corruption cases all by himself, and died a lonely but vindicated man, having been cleared in all cases.

The party would have done the same to Manmohan. He, with his ‘anti-poor’ reform economics and inability to prevent scandals, would be the ideal man to blame for that 2014 disaster of 44. Another AK Antony report would have said pretty much what the first said while blaming Rao and his ‘suit-boot’ economics for the 1996 defeat. Three things made a difference: First, the personal affection in which the Gandhi family held Manmohan Singh. Second, the impact it saw him make with his initial statement on demonetisation. And third, the judicial unravelling of all the mega-scams of his tenure, notably 2G and coal.

Which brings us to our final point, and a question. Will Rahul’s Congress just leverage his voice now, or also listen to him? Singh, who lives very modestly, has been the greatest wealth creator for India in its modern history, and the least judgemental about the legitimate, tax-paying rich. Check all data from 1991 onwards. He’s a man of no riches, but had no prejudice against wealth creation in this deeply, hypocritically socialist polity. 

He is the only prime minister with the conviction to use an expression like revive the ‘animal spirit’ of the country’s economy. He also had the intellect to acknowledge that growth inevitably creates inequality. It is then for the state to intervene, redistribute and support the poor who, in turn, can’t be left to the mercy of the markets. He must watch in great concern as his party, under Rahul Gandhi, unleashes an economic rhetoric of its distant, disastrous past, where ‘Ambani-Adani’ are what evil ‘Tata-Birla’ were to the 1970s, when loan waivers are showered from campaign helicopters and holy PSUs are back in full glory. He must wince as Rahul goes plugging HAL as the best company to make a frontline Western fighter jet like the Rafale. Singh would know it can’t happen.

The question, therefore, is with nothing to lose now, will Singh give Rahul a tutorial on modern, reform economics? Or will he again lapse into his 2010-14 ‘what-can-I-do’ type helpless self-pity? We need to also watch if Rahul will listen to him this second time around.

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