The Republic Day pageant was Manmohan Singh’s last sight, as India’s prime minister, of the “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power”. After the general election he will, no doubt, be counting his blessings as private citizen and family man free at last of the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. The burdens of high office, first as finance minister, next as prime minister, have been borne with conspicuous dignity and not a little stoicism. During his last years in office, Singh has endured more than his share of obloquy.
“Comment is free but facts are sacred,” pronounced a legendary English newspaper editor a century ago. That age of innocence has long disappeared into the shadows. Facts are now subject to market valuation, comment is licence or whim. In the era of the corporatist state it can scarcely be otherwise. Whether it be regime change in regions near and far or foreign wars in Vietnam, Iraq or Libya, the mainstream Western media and their Cold War clones in distant parts have been actively complicit in such undertakings with jingoist beats climaxed by a feeding frenzy that would bring to mind sharks moving in for the kill. Noam Chomsky’s seminal work on the political economy of the mass media tells it as it is.
Singh is accused of being inert and unresponsive to the demands of the Indian economy, of lacking conviction in the conduct of India’s external policies. His critics appear to be blindsided by their incendiary rhetoric. Time was in 1991 when a bankrupt India faced by an existential crisis required a life-saving economic course correction, coupled to a long-term strategy of sustained higher growth, inclusive and enabling in its approach to the country’s poorest citizens. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, the creation of a thriving polyglot nation of a billion and more people stretching across a subcontinent will surely require decades of collective endeavour.
As finance minister, Manmohan Singh followed the roadmap laid out by his prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao. In tandem they put India back on track, with gross domestic product growth a creditable 6 per cent (the fastest recorded thus far) during their five-year term together. The government was harried and obstructed throughout by an obstreperous Opposition of Right and Left blinkered by autarchic nostrums, sustained by populist raillery. Following Manmohan Singh’s elevation as prime minister, in June 2004, the Indian economy grew at an unparalleled yearly 8-9 per cent before the impact of the Wall Street crash worked its way through to India. The fact that the present 5 per cent growth evokes such a multitude of critical voices speaks of a rise in popular expectations.
One carping soul dismissed Manmohan Singh as a static prime minister, a charge which left me bemused. I was living in London, where the Microsoft Foundation duo Bill and Melinda Gates rhapsodized India’s anti-polio mass mobilization campaign, to which the foundation had made a generous contribution. Bill told his audience of the negative counsel he had received about his possible involvement in such an ambitious project. He was blown by what he witnessed first-hand, describing it as one of the subliminal experiences of his life. The government of India’s role, he said, had been exemplary and deserved recognition, particularly as it is a frequent object of censure for sins of commission and omission.
Manmohan Singh piloted the Indo-American civilian nuclear accord in the national interest, in the teeth of opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the two communist parties: a display of circular patriotism worse confounded. It will be interesting to see if the BJP aborts the deal and casts the country’s nuclear power adrift, were it to achieve power. Curiously, such questions are not put to Narendra Modi, the country’s would-be redeemer, whose grandiose schemes to alter the flow of India’s rivers, provide bullet trains at the press of a button and much else in similar vein is reminiscent of the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland. The construction of a hideous statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — gigantism run amuck — is essentially a monument to Modi’s pharaonic celebration of self, for Patel’s achievement in welding a single entity, the Union of India, from 568 disparate princely parts, is his enduring memorial. Modi’s gaffes on Indian history and geography are indulgently received, where Manmohan Singh might have faced instant crucifixion. Why do media bravehearts never pose to the BJP great and good, including Narendra Modi, this telling question — how does the shadowy Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cabal, whose workings are cloaked in secrecy, whose leaders are unaccountable to the public, the driving force behind the democratic Bharatiya Janata Party? Will a BJP government answer to Parliament or to the RSS? This has a South African resonance. During the apartheid era the secretive, tightly knit Broderbund was the fount of the white Nationalist regime’s power and doctrinal authority. The Hindutva gene is xenophobic (witness the anti-Valentine’s Day agitation). The partially sighted faithful have a massive cultural chip on their shoulders. They rail against Western culture but a green card to the United States of America or the citizen’s right of abode in Britain would send most in their ranks into rapturous acclaim. Hindutva is a distress call about a world perceived as threatening since it is so little understood.
The Modi ascendancy, if it comes to pass, is likely to be India’s time of trouble, of tumult and discord. Recall Indira Gandhi’s exit as prime minister in 1977. Morarji Desai kept austerely trim with draughts of his own urine, the ubiquitous spinning wheel, the rod and staff of his comfort, with ministers at loggerheads and low farce masquerading as government. Seymour Hersh, most formidable of investigative reporters, set the cat among the pigeons revealing Morarjibhai’s role as a CIA informant on Indian policy during the 1971 East Pakistan crisis. Desai sued in the American courts but was unable to clear his name. He is also believed to have handed over to Pakistan’s military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, the names of Indian agents in his country, who were captured and executed. Desai received Pakistan’s highest civilian award for his contribution to Indo-Pakistan friendship. The rise and fall of Janata Party-led-government and Indira Gandhi’s triumphant return to power is surely a lesson for our times.
Summing up, Manmohan Singh has handled the challenges of coalition government with skill, no small achievement in a fractious political environment made worse by an unruly Parliament. The United Progressive Alliance has overseen the emergence of 140 million Indians from direst poverty into the upwardly mobile class of consumers. There have been visible improvements in the general quality of life, including advances in literacy, affordable healthcare and food security. The leaps in telecommunications, science and space technology et al have been astounding. Manmohan Singh, like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao before him, has had the intellect and resolve to take informed decisions on matters of the greatest import. It was on his watch that the visionary concepts of industrial corridors received their first breath — Japanese participation, underpinning and extending the Look East policy initiated by Narasimha Rao. Manmohan Singh, an indifferent communicator at best, has been loath to blow his own or his government’s trumpet. Still waters run deep. Shallows churn at the merest whisper of wind. Put this down to Singh’s innate decency, as scarce now as a rare earth resource.
Much is made of Narendra Modi’s humble beginnings, little said about those of Manmohan Singh’s, growing up in an obscure Punjabi village and ending with a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he took a First in economics, winning the coveted Adam Smith Prize in the bargain. He earned his doctorate next door at Oxford. The unassuming Indian prime minister has more to boast about than his herd of cacophonous detractors.
As one who left India’s shores way back in September 1963 and who holds vivid memories of that bleak period, the country’s transformation, the release of its pent-up entrepreneurial energies, and its pains of labour have been for me an uplifting experience. The lean years, I believe, are behind us; we are now on the cusp of true fulfilment. The best surely is yet to come — sooner rather than later if Modi is forced by the Indian electorate to forsake Delhi for his Gujarat bailiwick. Manmohan Singh’s stature will be better appreciated in the fullness of time, all passion spent.