Throughout his career, Manmohan Singh has faithfully obeyed every order of every boss he has had. Today, with his long history of peonage, serfdom must have become an inalienable part of his character.
Following the “save Democracy” march on May 6 by the Indian National Congress leaders to divert public attention from the AgustaWestland scam, where Manmohan Singh was seen courting a photo-op arrest along with Sonia Gandhi, a joke did the rounds of social media. It said the former Prime Minister would willingly take the blame for all the scandals of the UPA era if the party president just asked him once. It was not the first time this purportedly honest public figure re-entered politics when he could have led a peaceful, retired life—expected of a “scholar” whose Prime Ministership was an “accident”, as Sanjaya Baru, his former media adviser, put it. Earlier, Singh had come out of the woodwork in support of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald controversy when the mother-son duo was slapped with a criminal case (they are currently out on bail).
What draws the man again into the hurly-burly of politics—even cheap street dramatics—from the quiet confines of his bungalow where he should be spending the evening of his life with his wife and family?
After all, even in his prime, he couldn’t win a Lok Sabha seat.
There can be only one answer: servility. Perhaps, 45 years of being a yes-man has deleted from his nature the capability to say no.
Faster, Higher, Smarter
It all began in 1971. Two years before, Singh had started teaching international trade at the Delhi School of Economics. The then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister P.N. Haksar, responsible for the most socialistic of Indira Gandhi’s policy decisions—for instance, the nationalisation of banks, insurance and foreign oil companies—asked Singh to write a paper on what the newly elected government ought to do. Equipped with this paper (and perhaps more), Singh became an Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Trade (later renamed Ministry of Commerce). The very next year, he was Chief Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance.
Haksar was succeeded by fellow Kashmiri Pandit P.N. Dhar as Principal Secretary. The latter was a founder of the Delhi School of Economics and thus, an old acquaintance of Singh.
Dhar referred Singh to Lalit Narayan Mishra, then Minister for Foreign Trade. Singh was Mishra’s co-passenger on a flight to New York, and Singh flew on to Santiago, Chile. Of course, Singh might not have planned to share the flight with Mishra. But then, when they returned, Dhar asked Mishra about Singh, and the minister said he was pretty impressed with his economic views shared on the flight. And promptly came Singh’s next promotion! Between 1976 and 1980, Singh was a director of both the Reserve Bank of India and the Industrial Development Bank of India. While Dhar kept a benign gaze on him through the Emergency till 1977, even under the Janata Party government that held office for the next three years, Singh managed not only to keep his job, but thrive. In the Janata era, Singh was also Secretary (Economic Affairs), Ministry of Finance.
Thereafter, Singh got the following promotions and placements: Governor, RBI (1982–1985); Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission (1985–1987); Secretary General, South Commission, Geneva (1987–1990); Adviser to Prime Minister on Economic Affairs (1990–1991); Chairman, University Grants Commission (15 March–20 June 1991). By government standards, this rise was more than meteoric.
Singh’s Report Card: 1971-91
After Indira Gandhi’s electoral win in 1971, the economy hurtled into crisis. Hit by drought in 1973, the Gandhi-Dhar-Singh team’s solution was to nationalise wholesale trade in foodgrains. This created the first unholy cartel of hoarders. Inflation touched 30 per cent. Panicking, the Haksar-Singh team froze dearness allowance and drastically cut corporate dividends. The Sensex nosedived. Many private companies shut shop, facing incessant worker strikes. Meanwhile, the State’s debt climbed to Rs 30 lakh crore.
Under Prime Minister Charan Singh, corporate tax was increased so much that companies had to pass the additional cost on to customers. Prices of essential commodities like soaps skyrocketed. Then came the second oil shock, and inflation shot up 17 per cent.
So what was Singh being promoted for—that too so rapidly—while the economy was performing so poorly? The answer may lie in the way he functioned under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar over the next decade.
The now-dissolved Bank of Credit and Commerce International, established and run by Pakistani wheeler-dealer Agha Hasan Abedi, had applied for permission to open a branch in Mumbai during Singh’s stint as RBI Governor in the early 1980s. Singh, when informed that US and UK authorities were investigating the bank for money laundering, rejected the application. Some Delhi satraps frowned. Singh offered to resign (this was his first resignation drama, repeated several times later). He was persuaded to stay on. And the Pakistani got his licence to operate in India as well.
When Singh, as Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, turned down Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran’s request to the Centre to fund his mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren, and the enraged MGR rushed out of Yojana Bhawan, Singh ran after him to pacify him. But while Singh had found mid-day meal schemes populist in Rajiv Gandhi’s era, he saw eminent sense in them during UPA1 and 2. But as we will see, U-turns are a hallmark of Singh’s career.
When Rajiv Gandhi wanted to convert the Planning Commission into a think tank, Singh refused. Rajiv called the Commission a “bunch of jokers” (and later denied having said so). The Commission’s members resigned en masse. Singh did not resign, but threatened to (there he goes again!). He tried to persuade his colleagues not to quit, but failed. He himself finally accepted the post of Secretary of the Geneva-based think tank South Commission. In Singh’s case, fortune favoured, not the brave, but the timid.
After Chandrashekhar brought Singh back to India from the South Commission, he advised the government to impose additional taxes worth Rs 1,200 crore to rein in the fiscal deficit. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha first resisted the proposal and then yielded. The balance of payments crisis was already staring the country in its face, forcing Chandrashekhar to mortgage 67 tonnes of gold to the Bank of England and Union Bank of Switzerland as guarantee money. One wonders why Singh couldn’t think of solutions other than high taxation to offer Chandrashekhar—solutions he readily supplied as Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao government just a few months later.
But that is Manmohan Singh for you—the economic chameleon: a centralising socialist under Indira Gandhi, an inertial socialist refusing to correct himself under Charan Singh, surrendering to a dubious operator, taking insults lying down under Rajiv Gandhi, continuing to be tax-happy under Chandrashekhar, and suddenly a liberaliser under Narasimha Rao. And then back to socialism under Sonia Gandhi!
Rao had reached out first to former RBI Governor I.G. Patel to be his Finance Minister. When Patel refused to leave academia for politics, he turned to someone whose re-entry into academia had been stonewalled: Manmohan Singh. The previous year, the Punjab University had rejected his candidacy, saying: “His first love is politics rather than economics.”
Everybody knows what Singh did for the next five years as Rao’s nuts-and-bolts man. Or do they? Yes, India’s economic reforms began on 24 July, 1991, but the reforms were set in motion by Rao, who also held the Industries portfolio, when he announced a pathbreaking industrial policy which scrapped licensing in almost all sectors, allowed foreign equity up to 51 per cent in some areas, and set the ball rolling for disinvestment. A few hours later, Singh rose in Parliament to read his first Budget speech, and there was little reformist in that Budget! But public memory today associates reforms with Singh’s Budget, aided by the post-Rao Sonia Gandhi-dominated Congress, and a strangely amnesiac media. It was in his second Budget, in 1992, that Singh picked up the ball and ran—making the rupee partly convertible, lowering income tax rates across the board, reducing import duties, and abolishing government control over pricing of share issues.
But this lasted only two years. In 1994, when Congress lost the assembly elections in several states, Rao decided that inflation was the only thing to focus on, liberalisation be damned. Hearing his master’s voice clearly, Singh squeezed money supply. The result: Indian industry, which was about to take off, was tripped without any prior warning.
The effects—as is the norm for all economic matters—became visible only after a lag. By 1997, industrialists and economists were whispering the dreaded R-word—recession. And for all his loyal efforts, Singh couldn’t even save his master; Congress lost the elections in 1996, and a “Third Front” government headed by H.D. Deve Gowda came to power.
It inherited an economy that looked healthy but was haemorraging internally. Singh had given hope to Indian industry and then brutally dashed it, mutilating a rising economy and not even being able to help his own party.
The story in 2014 was the same. Singh handed over to the Modi government an economy characterised by high inflation, high fiscal deficit, non-existent industrial growth and dramatically diminished foreign investment inflows.
But then, Singh, even as Prime Minister, had been doing what he had always done, obeyed his master, in this case Sonia Gandhi, who had decided, after careful study of her mother-in-law’s economic policies, that promising the poor the earth and launching grandiose schemes that burnt a hole through the exchequer and was successful only in boosting government corruption, was the way to go. And if Sonia resolved to walk down that road, Singh was ready to run.
It would also be useful at this point to remember that the first scam worth thousands of crores in independent India unfolded when Singh was Finance Minister: the securities scam.
And the biggest scams in independent India—scams that made the securities scam look like chump change, took place when Singh was Prime Minister. The securities scam, for the most part, involved avaricious stockbrokers; the Commonwealth Games, the 2G scam, the coal block allocation scam involved government functionaries, including ministers in Singh’s Cabinet.
The accidental prime minister
In 2002—four years after Sonia had grabbed the top position in the Congress and two years before Rao passed away, the party declared through a resolution that the father of economic reforms in India was not the Rao-Singh team, but Rajiv Gandhi. The “good doctor” grinned and bore the insult.
Life then came a full circle for him when the Prime Minister’s job landed on his lap in 2004. However, before he could shift to the PM’s official rsidence at 7 Race Course Road, he had to undergo a supremely humiliating experience the likes of which has hardly ever been seen in the history of democracies.
After Sonia announced that she would not be PM, and Singh would, all Congress MPs stood in a queue and begged Sonia to be PM. She listened impassively, and Singh sat beside her with his usual expressionless face. No one who possessed even one vertebra of the 33 that make up a human spine would have sat through this incomparable exhibition of sycophancy, whose clear message was: “We want Sonia, we don’t want you.” But Singh did. This pathetic drama was televised live and anyone watching knew who would actually sit on the throne, and who, though Prime Minister, woud sit on a footstool.
As PM, Singh nearly apologised for liberalisation—for which he had got all the credit from the media, not Rao. Doles like the minimum employment guarantee scheme called MGNREGA began. As a result, agriculture became less profitable for farmers. Opposition parties in different states complained that all the jobs were going to labourers affiliated to unions run by the ruling political parties. More than 50 per cent of the beneficiaries, it was found in 2011, were not poor at all. However, Sonia Gandhi and the 60 Communist MPs who had extended outside support to UPA1 still vie for its credit. So, yet another Manmohan Singh decision which was not a Manmohan Singh decision!
Next, the super PM prevailed upon the PM to bring in an equally leaky Food Security Act. The RBI Technical Advisory Committee in July 2013 warned of food price inflation. It was estimated that the law would cost 3 per cent of the GDP in its very first year. A December 2012 report by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices foresaw the Act causing acute imbalance in the production of oilseeds and pulses, limiting private enterprise in agriculture, reducing competition in the market and moving money from investments to subsidies. Nutritionists pointed out that the quantity of assured food did not address dietary needs. Nothing deterred Sonia and, since the boss wanted it, Singh implemented it.
Meanwhile, he enjoyed the lag effect of the Vajpayee government’s policies. So the economy did fine as long as the momentum he had inherited lasted, and the coffers didn’t run dry. GDP growth had risen to 7.9 per cent by the time the NDA demitted office. Even as 7.9 per cent remained the average growth rate under UPA, by the end of its second term, it had plummeted to below 5 per cent.
Singh’s education was adequate for him to see doom in every order of every boss that he implemented since 1971, but he never put his foot down. As commentator Tavleen Singh writes in her book India’s Broken Tryst (see the Books section in this issue): “Nobody called it Dr Manmohan Singh’s government any more because he had retired into a world of shadows and silences from which he emerged only occasionally to go off quietly on some trip abroad.”
Singh had cut food and fertiliser subsidy in 1991 and then rolled back the policy in 1993. In 1991, the fiscal deficit had burgeoned to nearly 9 per cent and the current account deficit to almost 3 per cent of the GDP. The flight of capital from India had peaked. Pre-Budget, Singh had devalued the rupee in two steps (by 16 per cent and 6 per cent), slashed export subsidies and Rao had abolished industrial licensing. Post-Budget, Singh cut government expenditure. But then political pressure mounted, and Singh bowed again. Against the target of reducing the fiscal deficit to about 4 per cent of the GDP in five years, the government managed to bring it down to only about 5.5 per cent of the GDP.
Volte-faces, as already documented, have defined Singh’s career. As the exchequer couldn’t bear the weight of throwing good money after bad anymore, Sonia decided in 2012 that some reforms were needed to avert a 1991-like crisis, failing which even populism couldn’t save the government. She asked for a couple of liberal measures. She agreed to a reduction in diesel subsidies; Singh reduced diesel subsidies. Then she agreed to foreign direct investment in retail; Singh said there would be FDI in retail.
In late 2013, the government led by Singh decided to issue an ordinance against disqualification of convicted lawmakers. Then Rahul Gandhi suddenly appeared in a public meet, and called the ordinance “complete nonsense” and “wrong”. The ordinance was withdrawn.
Perhaps the ordinance was morally wrong, but Singh would not have pushed for it unless Sonia wanted it. Yet, her son Rahul’s action was a degrading public slap on his face. No PM had ever been slighted like this by his boss’ son, who also he had accepted as his boss.
But this time, Singh did not offer to resign (By our count, he has played the resignation card at least five times in his career). Maybe, as the late Vinod Mehta, who once proudly admitted to be “a Congress chamcha”, wrote, Singh had grown too fond of the vast estate—with its large verdant lawns and roaming peacocks—where Indian PMs live. Maybe he was ready to take any insult to have a comfortable life.
And yet the party isolated him
Singh must be repenting the one time when he “revolted” against the high command. In a programme on NewsX after the people’s verdict of 2014, journalist Vir Sanghvi said that the script for the collapse of UPA 2 had been written during the 2009 elections, after which Singh began believing that the UPA victory was due to his sticking his neck out on the India-US civil nuclear deal. Within the Congress, crediting anybody except the dynasty for success is sacrilege. The Gandhi coterie was furious that Singh had got this air about him that he was responsible for the Congress’s 2009 victory.
Apart from a customary “Dr Singh is innocent” line mouthed by spokespersons on television, his party did not come to his rescue even when his aide and adviser T.K.A. Nair was grilled by the CBI during the coal block allocation scam probe. Singh’s isolation became palpable after the “Chandigarh Club”, as his backers were called, lost their locus standi to support him. Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal had resigned from the Law and Railway Ministries respectively, following allegations of corruption. Kapil Sibal, the last Punjabi supporting him, was miffed as he had also not been favour of the ordinance that Rahul rubbished.
Much before Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, was released, he wrote: “The entire arrangement between the Prime Minister and the party has been that Sonia, and now Rahul, get all credit for the good the government does, and the Prime Minister gets the blame for all the bad.” Baru claimed that the PM, who had appointed Shyam Saran as Foreign Secretary, superseding several IFS officers, now did not even have a say in the matter of which bureaucrats would work in the PMO.
The present decade
But the fact that he had been isolated had dawned on Singh years ago. When anti-corruption activism—led by Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare in 2011—erupted, the Congress refused to stand up for its own government. At every moment of crisis, Sonia would escape to an undisclosed destination for medical treatment and the party’s spin doctors would hypothesise that the situation could have been handled better if “madam” had been around.
Maybe the coterie was right. Maybe Sonia was much smarter than Singh. The latter goofed up big-time by unleashing brute police force on Ramdev; the former cleverly co-opted a part of the parallel movement led by Hazare, which was hoodwinked into submission. They withdrew their agitation on the promise that a national ombudsman (or Lokpal) would be created in no time. The proposal was never accepted by Parliament until the NDA2 government assumed office three years later.
Of course, Sonia might have been too clever by half. One, the popular narrative created by Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption was so anti-Congress that it indirectly benefited the BJP. Two, activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal turned an even bigger socialist and minority appeaser, robbing Congress of all its votes. He made the Congress and the section of media friendly to the grand old party see in him the only hope of stopping Modi’s onward march. This further eroded the Congress’s electoral footprint during the 2014 Lok Sabha election and wiped it out off the face of Delhi in 2015. But that takes nothing away from the fact that not being able to handle Lohia-ite rabble-rousers was among the prominent mistakes of the Singh government.
With so many journalists having carried out a vitriolic campaign against Modi since 2002, it was political ineptness on the part of Singh that he could not use their services to also argue via newspapers and news television that, for example, the nation had incurred “zero loss” (like Kapil Sibal said) on account of the 2G spectrum scam, or that the loss was at best “presumptive” (as Manish Tewari said). While the section of the media that was frothing at the mouth kept saying a Modi would be dangerous for the “idea of India”, none had the temerity to further Sibal and Tewari’s theories. If journalists complain today that Modi’s media managers are awful, Singh’s spin doctors hadn’t done a great job either. But then, they were Sonia’s spin doctors, not Singh’s, and the Sonia faction had turned apathetic towards the Prime Minister.
By 2012, Singh realised his pitiable position in the Congress and then was reconciled with his fate: standing up for what he believed in would not work. (Of course, the question remains: Had he ever believed in anything?)
When revelations about the loot during the Commonwealth Games, and the 2G spectrum and coal block allocations enraged the nation, Singh did not address a single press conference to come clean on any of these scams. His silence was the most deafening when Minister for Communications A. Raja told the media that his first-come-first-served rule while allocating spectrum had the PM’s consent. When every Tom, Dick or Harry—like Sanjay Jha, the owner of a pro-Congress website—masqueraded as a party spokesperson on television as the regular appointees were too embarrassed to face the camera, Singh came up with an Urdu couplet that underscored his helplessness:
“Hazaaron jawabon se achchhi hai meri khaamoshi,
Na jaane kitne sawaalon ki aabru rakhe”
(My silence is better than a thousand answers.
You never know how many questions are spared sheer embarrassment)
Singh finally sealed his fate with an April 2013 interview where he said he was not ruling out continuing as Prime Minister.
So humiliated was Singh feeling towards the fag end of his “rule” that, in the 3 October 2013 Cabinet meeting to discuss Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation, he did not speak at all. When the MPs from the Telangana and Andhra factions urged him to say something, he said it was Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde’s call.
Now Manmohan Singh toes the boss’s line again. But why? He is already 84 and has never betrayed the political drive or perseverance of an M. Karunanidhi or a V.S. Achuthanandan. But, as we said in the beginning, with his long history of peonage, serfdom must have become an inalienable part of his character.