Manmohan Singh is a very modest man, even though he need be modest about very little. He is a scholar, a successful mandarin, arguably India’s most noteworthy finance minister and now India’s prime minister. Above all this, he is a man of great integrity and dignity. It is thus a bit surprising and a bit sad to see Mr Singh attending an awards function of a leading television channel. It is true that Mr Singh himself was being honoured at the function — he was given the award of Indian of the year — but that cannot be a good enough reason for the prime minister to go to the awards function. It needs to be recalled that on previous occasions when Mr Singh has been asked to grace a function — say, to release a book — he has requested that the function take place in his residence or office, far from the madding crowd. Even the function to release a book by Amartya Sen — an occasion that is, or should be, more important to Mr Singh than an awards function — was actually held in 7 Race Course Road. As the prime minister of the country, Mr Singh very rightly insisted that the function come to him rather than he go to the function. It should be said, without sugar-coating the pill, that by going to the awards ceremony, Mr Singh has lowered his gravitas and compromised the dignity of the high office he holds.
There are good grounds for passing such a harsh judgment on the prime minister. The gathering that evening was that of the glitterati and not of the literati, which is Mr Singh’s obvious and chosen turf. It is difficult to imagine that Mr Singh was very comfortable among public figures who are seen more often on what has come to be known as the Page Three of newspapers. At the function, he was seen among popular film stars, past and present. It would be ideal if the prime minister did not recognize stars from tinsel town publicly. Short of that, he need not go out of his way to rub shoulders with them in public and in the full glare of TV cameras. This might be a bit snooty, especially to Mr Singh who has a natural and charming humility, but there is nothing wrong in expecting the prime minister to have class and a sense of discrimination.
The sense of discrimination is crucial. It can be no one’s argument that the prime minister should not attend any function outside his formal duties. Mr Singh is a very good chief guest to have, and there must be innumerable requests to his office wanting him to attend functions and ceremonies. Mr Singh — or more correctly, his secretariat, should choose carefully after enquiring about the nature of the function and the kind of people the prime minister will be seen with. Here the determinant should not be public relations, but the dignity of the prime minister’s office and Mr Singh’s personal dignity. Both these should be above compromise.