A press conference by the prime minister is big news; after all, he has held only three in nine years. He would not have held one unless he thought he had something of importance to convey. His introduction consisted largely of a mark sheet for himself and his government. He listed his government’s achievements as well as work in progress; as regards errors and failures, he left it to law to deal with crimes, and to fate to deal with the rest.
Normally, it is teachers who give marks to students. In a democracy, it is the people who give marks to their rulers. Admittedly, the marks they give are not unambiguous. After an election, the victorious party, if any, celebrates; each of those who do not win gives its failure its own spin. Political performance is a complex mixture of effort and happenstance; judgments on it are diverse, and depend as much on the observers’ biases as on facts. Political judgments are being made every day and every hour; no one takes the flood seriously. Why, then, did the prime minister choose to devote a press conference to it? It can only be because he wanted to present a mark sheet; and he did so because he thinks that the marks he has been given by many are wrong and that he deserves better. He left the judgment to history. In other words, he thinks that his performance will be seen in a better light some years from now; and he pointed the inhabitants of the future towards the pertinent aspects, in case they missed them. What he said is as much an indicator of wherein his critics do him wrong as of what he thinks he has done right.
Before I turn to his self-defence, however, a word about the plaint he is replying to. Verbal attacks, fair or unfair, are stock in trade of politics. A seasoned politician would not object to attacks; on the contrary, he would try to outdo his opponents. He would never tell his slanderers to be fair; he would abuse them in return. He may be fair to them, but that would not be his objective: he would aim to carry conviction, fairly or unfairly. To achieve this, he would use not only rational arguments, but rhetoric, which, loosely defined, is the art of persuasion. If you want a good practitioner of the art, you only have to follow Manmohan Singh’s prime target, Narendra Modi.
Consider his epithet for Rahul Gandhi, Shehzada. He has even got his Urdu (Persian, really) wrong: it is shahzada or shahzade (there is a short a at the end of the word, pronounced like the two a’s in Narendra Modi’s name; the English do not have it, so they write it as e). Rahul is the son of a politician killed 25 years ago. He has none of the airs of a prince; on the contrary, he is pathologically shy. The description is wrong and inaccurate. But it does not matter. It jolts everyone, whether Modi’s friend or foe; everyone reacts with a guffaw or outrage, depending on his political persuasion. Either way, people hang on his words.
Democracy is a peaceful way of settling political differences; it replaces physical with verbal fighting. Verbal combat is not confined to rational arguments; it uses all the weapons that are used in films or plays. Unlike Manmohan Singh, Modi did not go to university, so he never had to read a serious book. But being a hot-blooded Indian, he dreamt of love and hate, and watched Hindi films. No wonder his Hindi is colloquial and amusing — not perfect, just effective.
Manmohan Singh’s English is excellent; his logic is all right. But no one would hang on his words. He does not use the simplest tricks of rhetoric. He evidently minds his public image, which he thinks has been created by a malicious mob. It is true; there are many who show irrational contempt for him. But where are his admirers? Even if he addresses himself only to Anglophone intellectuals, he should have some cheerleaders amongst them. Look at all the columns that are written day after day; how many of them praise him or even treat him fairly in his own view? And why are there so few? Why does he not carry conviction amongst them? I find it regrettable, but I cannot but recognize the fact: virtually every middle-class person I come across is sold on Modi. It is no contest. As Manmohan Singh’s well-wisher, I have to say that he simply does not have the power of persuasion that is the stock in trade of a politician. His impression that the media have ganged up against him is wrong: he has not mastered the art of charming them.
Not that it matters. For there is division of labour within the Congress. Manmohan Singh runs the cabinet. Sonia Gandhi decides political strategy. She has her own kitchen cabinet of people. They manage state Congress units — test opinion and form governments or Opposition caucuses. It is because of the strength of Congress organization that Manmohan Singh could specialize and manage the government for almost ten years. The same middle-class people who make fun of Manmohan Singh have been ranting against Sonia Gandhi.
Their abuse fills the media; but much to their chagrin, they do not matter. It is the people — as poorly educated as Modi, as poor as he was when he started life — who elect governments. Manmohan Singh is well aware of it; that is why he has decisively directed Central government funds into populist schemes with fancy Sanskrit names.
And that is why he was so defensive and unconvincing when he came to corruption. He can hardly ignore it, for the Congress government has created the largest corruption machinery in the world. Honest as he is, he might have been expected to be embarrassed. But he is not. He defended corruption earlier on grounds of coalition compulsions. This time he said that law would deal with cases of corruption. That it would, at a snail’s pace and with uncertain results. Thus, his defence of his government on this point is weak and unconvincing. It is to me — and to the people of Delhi, if the rise of Aam Aadmi Party is any indication. This is what Manmohan Singh’s well-wishers regret — that a transparently honest man connived for years on grounds of practicality, while his partners and allies made illegal billions. To which I would add my own regret — that he actually created and expanded mechanisms like NREGA and the public distribution system that gave opportunities for massive corruption.
Manmohan Singh sees a hostile middle class ganged up against him. It was no gang; there were many strands in their criticism of him, and some of them were constructive. One might have expected him, as an intellectual, to study the critique, and use it to repair and improve his preferred policies. Why did he not do this? Why did he surround himself with sycophants and withdraw into an intellectual bolthole? Maybe because he did not have the self-confidence, the insouciance, of Narendra Modi.