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THAT INDELIBLE IDENTITY

- A disastrous PM, but a conscientious friend

It is going to be the last month of Manmohan Singhís tenure as the countryís prime minister. Even if all the opinion polls are just bunkum and the Congress is once again able to put together a ramshackle coalition to form the new government, it would be headed by a different individual. So that is that.

It is going to be an inglorious exit. There is almost total unanimity that the ten years of his prime ministership have been a near-disaster. He has been the target of virulent attack, continuously, both from the Right and the Left, and has been much derided even within his own party. The BJP is of the view that he has purposely slowed down the pace of reaching the target of full-scale economic liberalization, which would have been for the countryís immense good. The Left is convinced that he, as interpreter of the so-called Washington Consensus, and the version of neo-liberal economics he has sponsored, is responsible for the current mess in the economy. The consequence of which has been the gradual gathering of strength by divisive forces cloaked in the form of regional parties with strident communal, ethnic, linguistic and even fascistic passion. The upshot is a gradual erosion of the Centreís authority, which might have a grave impact on the nationís security. The prime minister is watching the proceedings nearly disinterestedly.

The critics go even personal: they mimic Manmohanís namby-pamby style of public speaking and the drab monotone in which the speeches are delivered, which puts one to sleep. There are yet others who consider it a disgrace that their great country has had to put up with a prime minister who has no personality of his own, and acts as if he is obligated to the Nehru-Gandhi family. The overall verdict is that we have had a head of government whose demeanour is that of an orderly of a proper prime minister.

His sponsoring the set of neo- liberal economic policies both as finance minister in the final decade of the last century and as prime minister since 2004 has, it is my belief, only made this country of 1.2 million subversive to external forces for an indeterminate period of time. It has also eroded all possibilities of organizing effective opposition to the trend through democratic means, thereby aggravating the emergence of totalitarian elements in a bid to capture the reins of government. I have criticized him over the years in the most severe terms in my columns, to the extent of describing him as little better than a domestic servant of the Nehru-Gandhis.

But, all of a sudden, my instinct nudges me to take a pause. For there is yet another Manmohan Singh whom I have known for nearly 60 years now, who is altogether different: kind and affectionate, full of understanding and consideration for others. Must I not have the grace to acknowledge what, at the personal level, I owe to him? I have to be contrite and walk away from the crowd of merciless critics in this unhappy season and narrate a couple of stories from real life.

It was the summer of 1988. My wife and I had flown overnight from New York, landing at Frankfurt in the morning. We intended to connect to a flight to Vienna where a very close family friend of long years, Khurshid Hyder, was posted as Pakistanís ambassador to Austria. She was suffering from a terminal illness and we wanted to spend a few days next to her offering her our love and encouragement. We would be guests of our younger friend, Madhu Bhaduri Bhalla, who was minister in the Indian embassy in Vienna.

At Frankfurt airport, we had to take a different floor to collect our tickets for Vienna. We took the escalator. As I stepped out at the right floor, the baggage cart I was holding in front of me slipped away from my grip, I collapsed in a heap and lost consciousness. I had suffered a severe cardiac attack, was rushed to a city hospital and initially declared medically dead, but an emergency surgery and a rushed installation of a pacemaker saved me. It, however, meant a stay in the hospital bed for at least three weeks.

Between the two of us we had exactly a hundred dollars. Those were still the days of stringent exchange control and meeting the hospital expenses would have presented an enormous problem. Fortunately for us, Madhu arrived from Vienna and took full charge, including the responsibility of meeting the medical bills. News of my immobilization at Frankfurt spread quickly. We had friends strewn across Britain and Europe, including London, Cambridge, Oxford, Brussels, Paris, Rome and elsewhere. That I might have to face a grave financial problem must have occurred to them, and they could not have been aware of Madhuís presence in Vienna. None of them, however, either came or got in touch with me or my wife; perhaps they had prior commitments or were on vacation. Only one friend chose to be conscientious. His name was Manmohan Singh. He was at the time in Geneva as executive head of the South Commission chaired by Julius Nyirere, sponsored by the UN. Manmohan took a full day off, flew to Frankfurt, visited me and met the hospital authorities to enquire about the arrangements and made long, searching enquiries from my wife whether she needed financial accommodation of any amount. He said good-bye in the evening only after ascertaining that Madhu Bhaduri had indeed sewed things up most satisfactorily and there was nothing further to worry over.

Manmohanís tenure as prime minister might have been an unhappy, unfortunate accident, but his kindness and generosity on that occasion had nothing accidental about it, his concern for me and my wife was the product of a deeply felt regard and affection. His being a flop ó or worse ó of a prime minister has nothing to do with the gratitude that I feel towards him. I am utterly disillusioned with his role as a ruling political personality. At the same time, I felt and continue to feel proud of possessing such a friend who turned up when he felt I most needed help. My wife, who died six years ago, had a particularly soft corner for Manmohan even when she, along with billions of other housewives, was a helpless victim of the retrograde policies he presided.

The other occasion ó this time on the official plane ó I felt personally beholden to Manmohan was something which happened four years earlier in 1984, again in the summertime. Indira Gandhi had just removed Farooq Abdullah from the chief ministerial slot in Jammu and Kashmir by extremely shoddy means. I was holding charge of the finance portfolio in the Left Front government of West Bengal and one of the prime individuals in the then raging movement for re-aligning Centre-state relations. We in West Bengal, along with Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tripura, the quintet of non-Congress state administrations, took the lead to launch a protest at the national level against the skulduggery perpetrated against Farooq. We made a great row over the meeting of the National Development Council, which, by coincidence, had been convened during that week; I, in particular, made almost a nuisance of myself by shouting my protest continuously. This peeved Indira Gandhi no end. Our walk-out was a major political event and the media were full of it.

But the drama did not end there. The finance commission for 1984-85 and the subsequent four years, presided over by Y.B. Chavan, had just submitted its recommendations to the government. It is ordinarily a mere formality for the government in the ministry of finance to examine the commissionís recommendations; the standard convention was to accept the recommendations in full. I had made a fervent plea to the commission to take into account the extremely difficult financial circumstances West Bengal was facing because of the very generous flow of funds arranged for the rural sector to energize the three-tier panchayat system and also because of the introduction of many social welfare measures to help the poor and unemployed. Chavan listened to me with great sympathy and I felt most encouraged. It was generally known that the commissionís accommodations for 1984-85 were specially generous to Bengal. Because of the happenings in the national development council, the atmosphere was charged. Abruptly, the government released its recommendations on the finance commissionís recommendations. For the first and last time in the nationís history, the commissionís recommendations for the years, 1984-85, which included a special bounty for Bengal, the government turned down on the ground that the country was going through an acute financial crisis, the additional spending the commission had recommended for the year would worsen the situation. The Union finance minister, however, came to assure the state governments headed by the Congress that they should not worry, New Delhi would make up for the loss of money for the year through other means. No such assurance was, of course, forthcoming for the non-Congress states; they were told in no uncertain terms that insubordination against the Centre was a costly business.

Manmohan was then the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. As soon as he learnt of the governmentís decision on the commissionís recommendations, he flew to Delhi and met the prime minister. I had it from the most authoritative source that he told Indira Gandhi that the governmentís decision would do more harm to the country than good; those states facing the most acute financial crunch because of the denial of the commissionís recommendation, funds for them, would be forced to come to the RBI and they would ask for more overdrafts. The RBI, taking account of the circumstances, would be morally bound to print notes and hand them over to the states in distress, thus adding to the money supply and further aggravating the situation. The prime minister said she appreciated Manmohanís point of view but would have to accept the advice of her finance minister. So that was that. Manmohan went really out of his way to argue on our behalf, more so since he knew about Indira Gandhiís increasing dislike for me personally. Besides, he argued against the finance minister, who, technically speaking, was his appointing authority. It is some irony that two decades later, Manmohan himself was the prime minister while the same gentleman was his finance minister. I would be a cad if I do not go on record appreciating Manmohanís sympathetic approach to the entire issue. I might have called him the worst of names over what he did as finance minister and during his tenure as prime minister, but the debts I owe him are not washed away thereby.

That tenure of his, as head of the countryís government, is coming to its terminus. The puzzle will persist as to why he had to be so cringingly reverential towards the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. And, irrespective of whether the policy framework he imposed on the nation reflected his strong personal convictions or were in accordance with directives from outside sources, domestic or foreign, he cannot escape from owning responsibility for its consequences. I, nonetheless, cannot forsake my deep affection for him and very much wish he can lead a tranquil life from now on. Unfortunately, he cannot disappear into anonymity; the indelible identity of a failed former prime minister will allow him no peace. That is a tragedy.