Manmohan Singh, as he prepares to take his last bow as prime minister, must be wondering about the role of the unexpected in his political career. The finance ministership came to him unexpectedly only after I.G. Patel turned it down. The top job of the country was even more of a surprise. Sonia Gandhi gifted it to him when she, much to the amazement of one and all, renounced the post of prime minister. Further, when Mr Singh took his first oath as prime minister, he could not have expected that he would hold the office for a decade. Many, his admirers especially, will add another unexpected item. Very few expected him to be such a disappointment as a prime minister. This sense of disappointment was heightened in the course of his second term but there were signs even in the first. The hallmark of his prime ministership was his reluctance to be decisive. The only exception to this was the stand he took on the Indo-US nuclear deal in the face of opposition from the leftists, who were then allies of the government. Other than this, Mr Singh gave the impression that he was hamstrung because he feared someone was looking over his shoulder. He made himself a prisoner of his loyalty. Thus he failed as a leader.
It is true that Mr Singh’s plight was not a pleasant or an easy one. No one thought of him as a leader. All Congressmen, Mr Singh included, saw Ms Gandhi as the leader. This issue of dual leadership aside, there were some problems that Mr Singh could have easily avoided. His only asset, when he entered politics, was his unimpeachable integrity. Even his enemies and critics admitted this. Yet, and here lies the irony, the second government of the United Progressive Alliance bears the ineradicable stamp of dishonesty and corruption. As the fire of corruption spread, Mr Singh, like Nero of old, did precious little. He thus allowed even his own image and integrity to be tarnished. If when he came to power no one doubted his integrity, as he relinquishes office, very few believe in his integrity. He has allowed the tar of his colleagues to blacken him. He did this by being passive and impassive. He made no attempt to reach out to the people and allowed the morale of his party to flag. Mr Singh hopes that future historians will be kind to him. As a scholar, he should know that the verdict of the future is never free of the assessment of contemporaries. In a pathetic way, Mr Singh has let himself down.