The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, believes that history will judge him better than the way contemporaries have done. There will be two questions that future historians will inevitably ask and try and answer on the basis of available facts. One is, what happened to Mr Singh between his two terms as prime minister? And the other will be: who did Mr Singh bat for during his second term, India, the Congress, Sonia Gandhi or himself? The two questions are not entirely unrelated. Mr Singh came to power in the most unusual circumstances, when Ms Gandhi denied herself the job that was rightfully hers. But Mr Singh came to the top job with a tremendous amount of goodwill behind him because of his integrity and because of his achievements as a finance minister under P.V. Narasimha Rao. That first term was an important one, marked as it was by the Indo-US nuclear deal. It was the momentum of the first term that brought the United Progressive Alliance to power for a second term. And since then it was downhill all the way. The prime minister lost his decision-making capacity; his government became embroiled in sordid corruption cases; and Mr Singh fell more and more silent. His goodwill plummeted but he did nothing to rescue it. He gave the impression that he was a prisoner of circumstances.
Yet, Mr Singh remained the prime minister. If he was a prisoner, he appeared to be a willing one. The growing impression was that he had given up on running the country. Unable to run the country or not allowed to run the country, he withdrew into the realm of foreign policy and took a stab at making a success of it. Even in his own special field of expertise, the economy, he failed to make a mark as growth fell and inflation rose. He lost his zeal for reforms as he watched the Congress president imposing schemes that the exchequer could hardly bear. It was difficult to believe that Mr Singh was the same man as the finance minister in the early 1990s and the prime minister under the first UPA government. It was never clear during his second term who he was serving.
Mr Singh’s two terms as prime minister will never be free from the shadow of Ms Gandhi. The impression endures that she was always looking over his shoulder. This made a cautious man over cautious, and a beholden man inactive lest his actions be misconstrued as disloyalty. Through the trapdoor of this unnatural division of power and responsibility, the credibility of the UPA fell as if into a bottomless pit. Mr Singh watched as a man more sinned against than sinning. The context could become an alibi for his miserable showing as a prime minister in his second term. But it will never provide a full answer as to why Mr Singh did not assert himself more, and why, in his second term, he allowed his loyalty to an individual to override his responsibility to the job he held.