There is an old anecdote about Manmohan Singh that tells us about his character and personality. It was 1991 and the Chandra Shekhar government had fallen. Manmohan Singh showed up to meet the former prime minister with a file — it was to get clearance for his appointment as chairman of the University Grants Commission. Presumably, Singh wanted to find a way to keep the privileges and benefits that flowed from staying in government bureaucracy, of which he had been a part since the early 1970s. Chandra Shekhar protested that he had already resigned, and thus couldn't sign the file, to which Manmohan Singh retorted that the document had been back dated.
Before he left office in 2014, Manmohan Singh had asserted that “history will be kinder to me than the media.” In the film The Accidental Prime Minister where Anupam Kher has brilliantly acted as Manmohan Singh, the prime minister is portrayed more as a tragi-comic figure rather than a villain. In the last five years, Manmohan Singh's record as an economist, career bureaucrat, politician and ultimately prime minister has been extensively analysed, and overall the picture is not pretty, to put it mildly.
Manmohan Singh has been at the receiving end of vicious personal attacks throughout his long innings in public life. Even his ‘manhood’ was called into question by a figure no less than the Vajpayee government's finance minister and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha. Sinha, who is nowadays seen supping and plotting with the leaders of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and mahagathbandhan to bring down the Narendra Modi government, called Manmohan Singh “Shikhandi” in 2004 after the Vajpayee government lost the general election.
Given what we now know transpired during the Congress-UPA years, Sinha had drawn a perspicacious parallel — in the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma had decided not to attack Shikhandi given his gender. Arjun hid behind Shikhandi and rained arrows on Bhishma, felling the great soldier and general.
The manner in which Singh pulled an epic version of the great Indian rope trick, fooling India and the world into believing that he was an honest man and India's principal economic reformer is a story that nobody would believe if it were fictional. Like Shikhandi, Manmohan Singh’s image gave protection to a series of policies that crushed India’s economy, debilitated India’s security and set back the national development project by over a decade. He was the front that enabled the looting and emasculation of India.
As India heads into a general election, it is worth recounting the record of this man, who willingly made himself a pliant tool in exchange for high office and provided cover to the ceaseless and brazen corruption of the Congress party. With elections in the air, once again there are many economists and technocrats vying to fill the prime minister's chair as agents of the Congress's first family, and it does not hurt to remember history.
In just one year in 2007, during the high noon of the Manmohan Singh era, Rs 5.3 trillion (over $100 billion at the time) was turned into black money and left India illegally, according to a report by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. As Columbia University’s Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya have frequently documented, reforms came to a standstill during the UPA years, even as Manmohan Singh took credit for the liberalisation efforts made by P V Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and rode the wave of economic growth, crowning himself the “architect of Indian reforms”.
In this task, he was helped along by British press outlets in particular that gushed in glee when they saw an Oxbridge old boy at the helm of the crown jewel of the erstwhile Empire. The Economist proclaimed Singh India's "most reformist prime minister" in a cringe-inducing cover story even before he took office. In a bid to shame the Bharatiya Janata Party for raking up the issue of Sonia Gandhi's Italian origin, the venerable "newspaper" drew an equivalence with the "foreign origin" of L K Advani, who was born in Karachi in undivided India and had migrated to India during Partition. The "newspaper" did not realise that Manmohan Singh too had been born in Gah, West Punjab prior to Partition.
In 2005, when Oxford University gave him an honorary doctorate, Manmohan Singh said that "with the balance and perspective offered by time", as India's prime minister he could say that the British Raj had been beneficial for India too.
It doesn't take much to buy the craven endorsement of a colonised mind — a piece of paper issued by Oxford dons is sufficient. Notably, the resident intellectual of today's Congress party, Shashi Tharoor, has been vociferously driving the narrative of how the British looted India, in a bid to burnish his party's nationalist credentials.
While the technocratic and administrative career of Manmohan Singh has received significant attention and critique, his political choices have escaped scrutiny. Two episodes stand out in particular.
The 1991 budget is a landmark budget in India’s history, remembered for ushering in the liberalisation era. The budget was read out by Manmohan Singh on 24 July 1991, but the economic blueprint was ready at the end of 1990 itself. In the words of eminent economist and former director of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Bibek Debroy, Manmohan Singh “wasn’t the engineer or architect…at best he was contractor.”
Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated on 21 May 1991. Manmohan Singh took the unprecedented step of announcing a grant of Rs 100 crore from the Government of India to Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, a private trust set up by the deceased prime minister’s family. Even though the grant was later cancelled because of protests by opposition parties, Manmohan Singh’s loyalty became unquestionable in the eyes of the Congress party’s first family. Singh, the honest loyalist, thought it fit to fish into the public exchequer and hand over an astronomical sum of taxpayer’s money to a private foundation.
In 1999, Manmohan Singh was selected to contest the Lok Sabha election from South Delhi. Fifteen years had passed since the ghastly anti-Sikh pogrom when thousands of Sikhs were murdered in cold blood by mobs led by Congress leaders, but there was no justice on the horizon as one enquiry commission after another turned the exercise into a farce.
In an astonishing remark on the campaign trail, Manmohan Singh asserted that the riots were sponsored by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. One can only imagine how many loyalty brownie points this despicable lie fetched him with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Voters were not fooled by his machinations, however, as Singh convincingly lost the only election he contested in his life.
That this was a brazen lie was known even then — its shamelessness has been further established by what Manmohan Singh’s daughter, Daman Singh, narrates in her book Strictly Personal. Manmohan Singh, who was then governor of the Reserve Bank of India, had his home in the Ashok Vihar area attacked by rioting mobs.
As the RBI governor, Singh had come to Delhi to pay his last respects to Indira Gandhi. It was the presence of Vijay Tankha, a Hindu and Manmohan Singh’s son-in-law, that saved the Singh family home from being burned down. The Nanavati Commission constituted by the Vajpayee government named Congress leaders and established how the party had been behind the riots.
As recently as August 2018, Congress president Rahul Gandhi flatly denied that the party had a role in the riots. In October 2017, Manmohan Singh shared the stage with 1984 riots accused Sajjan Kumar. In December 2018, Sajjan Kumar was convicted for his role in the riots.
With the "honest" prime minister as its shield, the Congress party-led government wantonly indulged in calculated acts of malevolence. When Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw passed away in 2008, the only government representative who attended his state funeral was the Union minister of state for defence Pallam Raju.
Manekshaw was the military architect of the victory of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, one of India’s finest triumphs. His charged exchange with Indira Gandhi, where he offered to resign if he was not allowed to decide the military course of action, is the stuff of legend and didactic of how to speak truth to power. India's hero, Field Marshal Manekshaw undertook his last journey without the recognition and honour that was his unquestionable due.
When Narasimha Rao, the true architect of the 1991 economic liberalisation, passed away in 2004, the Congress party prevented his mortal remains from being taken to the party headquarters and the government denied his family the opportunity to hold Rao's state funeral in New Delhi. Rao’s biographer, Vinay Sitapati, writes in his book Half Lion about how stray dogs pulled at the pyre of Rao’s partially burned body in Hyderabad.
The contrast could not be starker with the exemplary conduct of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government when Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh, hero of the 1965 war with Pakistan, and Vajpayee passed away. Both these great sons of India were honoured in ways befitting their outstanding service to the nation.
Through the series of scurrilous acts, humiliating indignities and sadistic pettiness, Manmohan Singh looked the other way, clinging to the high office he had parachuted into. Today, he enjoys his status as a former prime minister. His inglorious record should be a lesson to us and a reminder — only a person of the people, who has come from the people, and who owes allegiance to nobody but the people should sit in the highest executive office of the world’s largest democracy.
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