Manmohan Singh, as he bids adieu to the prime ministership, is confident about the kindness of posterity. But future historians, like present chroniclers, will continue to debate the fall. How is it that a man who came to the top job with so much goodwill leaves it without a hurrah going up for him? Part of the debate is a function of a larger and a deeper controversy that haunts historians — the responsibility of individuals in determining or subverting trends. It is one thing to repeat the self-evident truth that as the prime minister, Mr Singh must carry the can of responsibility. It is quite another to argue that he could have altered the direction of the economic currents that affected India in the wake of the global meltdown. Another dimension of the same argument is Mr Singh’s failure or refusal to take adequate action against ministers known for their corruption. Mr Singh could have resigned, his critics aver. Those who are inclined to see Mr Singh less harshly could argue that by resigning Mr Singh could have saved his own reputation but achieved little else. Mr Singh did what he considered to be his duty. There is some irony in the fact that Mr Singh’s tenure as prime minister has the shadow of controversy over it because his personality and manner are not quite amenable to controversy. Even his worst critic will concede that he is a civilized and a good man.
The last sentence could tempt one to say that Mr Singh was a good man fallen among politicians. This would be simplistic. Mr Singh had voluntarily made the transition from being a successful economic bureaucrat to being a politician. He made the transition when he was finance minister under P.V. Narasimha Rao. He strengthened his political position by explicitly declaring his loyalty to Sonia Gandhi. It was this loyalty and his abilities that made Ms Gandhi choose him as prime minister: an act that made and unmade Mr Singh. It made him the prime minister and unmade him because it made him dependent on Ms Gandhi. The story of his prime ministership is also the story of the Singh-Gandhi relationship.
The expectation of the kindness of history is based on the Indo-US nuclear deal and a high rate of GDP growth over a longish period. But he failed to press home these achievements; instead, as allegations of corruption descended on his regime, he retreated into his shell. Always introverted by nature, he sought to make a virtue of his reticence. This diverted attention from some of his more intangible achievements. After Jawaharlal Nehru, he was the only prime minister who never once deviated from an unwritten code of civility. Indians will underestimate this quality at their own peril. Mr Singh has done the republic some service and it would be wrong not to acknowledge it.