A fairy tale does not have an unhappy ending. A grim fairy tale is a contradiction in terms. Yet a fairy tale of Indian politics appears to be heading towards a sad conclusion. The rise of Manmohan Singh to political power reads like a modern fairy tale. A sound economist and bureaucrat, he was pitchforked into an economic crisis when he was made finance minister in 1991. He, with adequate support from the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, helped India to overcome the crisis. In so doing, he also gave the Indian economy a completely new direction. He inaugurated the era of liberalization and economic reforms in India. What was a languishing economy was transformed and became an engine of growth and entrepreneurship. This was the first phase of Mr Singh’s political rise. The second phase began when, much to everyone’s surprise, Sonia Gandhi nominated Mr Singh for the top job. Even Mr Singh did not quite expect this prize to come his way. But the prize had a price tag. Mr Singh had power, he had responsibility but he was also aware that these had come to him under very unusual circumstances. Ms Gandhi’s negation of office had brought Mr Singh to the prime ministership. Such a script occurs only in fairy tales.
Mr Singh, during his first term as prime minister, grew into the important office he held. One supporting factor was the extraordinary goodwill he commanded. No other Indian politician carried the stamp of integrity as Mr Singh did. His honesty was his best asset. During the second term of his prime ministership, things suddenly began to go awry. The shadow of corruption fell on Mr Singh’s government and this coincided with — some will say caused — the inertia of the government. No important decisions seemed to be taken; the prime minister, always quiet and reclusive, retreated into his shell. The accusing finger of corruption refused to go away. The revelations regarding the CBI’s report on coal has taken the suspicion right through the portals of the prime minister’s office. Even his friends are now forced to admit that Mr Singh’s position, including his integrity, today appears fragile. His inexplicable delay in dismissing two tainted ministers has only aggravated the situation. Mr Singh’s best asset is no longer in mint condition. This, when he is coming to the end of his second term as prime minister, is very sad. It is not the familiar Grimm’s fairy tale with a “happy ever after” ending. It is a grim fairy tale.