Missing Manmohan

A good man tarnished.

There is something about him that is endearing, almost appealing. I first thought it was the simplicity of the man – it is almost a vulnerability. Then I looked at his eyes. When I do that, he reminds me of R K Laxman's legendary cartoon creation, the 'Common Man'. Manmohan Singh is the Common Man wearing a turban, with the same intelligent, patient eyes, watching the world gently; his wife, Gursharan Kaur, is a far gentler version of the Common Man's harridan wife in Laxman's cartoons. Often, Singh seems to forget he is an historic actor, the prime minister in Parliament. He watches silently, almost distantly.

He is a good man, whose goodness is almost like his identity card, his emblem. His honesty is taken for granted; one begins with it. Yet, of late, one senses that goodness is not quite good enough. Something has changed. Even his silence seems questionable. One begins to ask, can a clean man live among so many dubious people? As evil spreads its tentacles, is simple honesty, the rectitude of a good life, enough? Or must goodness, rather than being content with itself, challenge the inventiveness of evil? Does Laxman's Common Man in the guise of a prime minister have to become an uncommon one?

Admittedly, these are strange questions to ask of a man to whom one has looked up. This is a man who has defined and embodied the competence and integrity of a generation of professionals, whose career was held up as an example of what talent, hard work, idealism and commitment can achieve. Suddenly, however, one confronts a vision of before-versus-after: the transition is not a gestalt switch, but a slow transformation into griminess. It is as if the simplicity of the original picture has turned coarse. There is a feeling of doubt. It is almost as if one needs a story, an explanation, a narrative that begins, 'Once there was a man named Manmohan…'

An act of hygiene
The legend of the man began for me in the mid-1970s at the Delhi School of Economics (DSE). Other legends of that time were Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakravarty, but Sen had already become a distant creature, someone who belonged to Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Harvard – a diasporic, global creature. Our local hero was Chakravarty, who swung happily between the Planning Commission and DSE. He would walk in to class reading, absorbed in his Economic and Political Weekly, a magazine as legendary as he was. As one of my professors put it, he was 'obscenely well read' – he knew his Lukacs, his Kalecki, his Kant and his Tinbergen. He was textbook-perfect, a classical scholar.

Then came the Emergency, and Chakravarty's star dimmed. He was a good man, who still continued as a Planning Commission member. But some felt he had failed because his goodness was only a form of technical competence. So, the icon crumbled and there was a sense that he had failed us; Chakravarty continued to be the doyen of the DSE but the context had changed, an uneasy sense that the economics and ethics had separated. I remember one of my contrarian colleagues arguing, 'What is so great about Sukhamoy? I think Manmohan Singh is more interesting.' It might have been pique, it could have been prescience; but as the world of Sukhamoy and the wider visions of Indira Gandhi faded, new names, new stars, new icons had to be created. Liberalisation could not make do with hand-me-downs from the Planning Commission. Every new era demands a new hero.

Manmohan's entry was a quiet, almost understated one. A wag quoted the epithet with which the ill-behaved Winston Churchill used to describe Clement Atlee, the British prime minister: 'A sheep in sheep's clothing.' But in Singh's case, this particular animal turned out to be a sturdy goat: quietly tough, ready to overcome the world of socialism, ready to challenge it in a matter-of-fact manner, without ideology, without rhetoric, merely claiming that liberalisation was an alternative form of competence, a different dialect, more suitable for the Indian state. It was brilliantly done, a costume ball of transformations that changed some of the basic categories of thinking about the state. There was almost no hostility towards the man. Liberalisation was presented as something necessary, like a change of diapers. Socialism smelt so bad that it had to go. An act of politics was presented as an act of hygiene.

As finance minister, Singh sanitised the P V Narasimha Rao years from 1991 to 1996. He did not present liberalisation as a new line of rhetoric, but rather as something 'national' that his technocrats, headed by Montek Singh Ahluwahlia, would put in place – a giant piece of plumbing, a rewiring of the economy for better responsiveness. The economist as hero had moved from being socialist ideologue to liberalisation guru. Sukhamoy Chakravarty had disappeared into the shadows, forgotten except by raconteurs. In those heroic years, Singh presented the image of the understated economist and the equally silent politician.

Liberalisation might have ideological overtones but Singh recast it as a personal signature, a professional competence, an innate goodness, a quiet nationalism, a brand name whose understatedness eliminated the need for advertisement. The Brahminical elite was happy. After Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of India and Oxford professor, here was another politician who could easily claim tenure at any Ivy League institution. Economists such as Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, global leaders in the field, treated Manmohan as an equal. In a world that cast itself as a knowledge economy, to have a finance minister who was academic, scholarly and knowledgeable was seen as a stroke of luck. India had begun shining brightly.

Manmohan was the perfect icon for the liberalisation years. He combined the goodness of competence and the competence of goodness, a blue-chip excellence that India relied on, a gold standard of integrity impossible to devalue. His dignity gave India a sense of dignity, and there was a clear sense of pride that he was our prime minister. People were not bothered if Singh did not sound political – he had enough politicians around him to make up for that. Politics at the everyday level could be outsourced to the Digvijay Singhs. It did not matter that Singh could not, had not, win an election for a seat in the Lok Sabha; Parliament was privileged to have him in the Rajya Sabha. His ineptness at factional or populist politics seemed actually to sanitise him, creating a political division of labour. High end politics was left to Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee, and governance to Singh.

This was a division of labour that was to become more than significant. Peter Drucker, a management consultant, has offered a wise distinction between a leader and a manager: 'The manager does things right. The leader does the right thing.' That should be read as a warning. For a decade, India was content with a managerial style. India needed economic reforms, and Singh was the right man in the right place. After his first term as prime minister (2004-09), his Congress party rode to Parliament on a stronger majority. However, his diffidence now appeared to be laced with shrewdness. He looked right, sounded right for the India of the 21st century. Dignity, competence, goodness became a hallmark of his style and served as an iconic model for the new generation. Shining India might have been a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) invention but it was a Manmohan Singh achievement.

The prince of delay
Against this background, how does one chronicle the latest phase, of Manmohan Singh's second term as prime minister? It cannot be a mere list of scandals, sounding like the wake of the Congress party. Perhaps decline is a gradient and it is best to contour it, capture it in all its levels. I think the sadness begins with silence. Part of the silence comes from the division of labour between 10 Janpath (Congress President Sonia Gandhi's residence) and 7 Race Course Road (the prime minister's official residence). Who really decides, who leads? Where does party politics end and governance begin?

The Congress became addicted to a politics of delay. Delay is not just a stretching of time: it is an altering of the quality of time, the ethics of decision as a deferred drama. It was a politics of non-decision. The Congress has created three forms of delay, each of which has affected the nature of its leadership. There is the prince of delay, Rahul Gandhi, playing a Hamlet-in-waiting, the perpetual adolescent, watching as others grow up and leave the nest. There is Sonia, silent in her power, content to watch the factions fighting, confident her word is the last one. Then there is Manmohan Singh, decent, used to a drawing-room correctness, confronting a decadence that sees corruption as an entitlement.

The Congress's coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, provides a saga of corruption, with each of its leaders T R Balu, Dayanidhi Maran, Kanimozhi and A Raja all embroiled in the telecom scam. Watching them could not have been easy; watching them in silence must have been even more difficult for Manmohan. To stay silent merely because the stability of the regime required it must have made governance seem a bit hollow. And as scandals accumulated, the Congress seemed to say that when it comes to corruption, I can do it better. The corruption scandal around the Commonwealth Games was so blatant that sport must have been incidental in the Congress mind. Yet Singh sat quietly, showing no official sign of distaste. The silence of a good man is the first signal that lets corruption turn blatant.

The Congress, once proud of its vows of conspicuous poverty, added conspicuous arrogance to its repertoire of achievements. Competence, especially the high-IQ competence of lawyers, can be arrogant, juxtaposing the intelligence of a lawyer's brief against the reformist naiveté of goodness. But the Congress does oversell such intelligence, especially within a politics which allows for make-do and muddling through. Congress politicians Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari represented two octaves of this arrogance that soon became mere noise. When politics desperately needed empathy and a hearing aid, Sibal treated the Jan Lokpal Bill as illiterate and Tewari blithely dismissed Anna Hazare as corrupt.

My goodness!
Then politics took a strange turn. Manichean struggle, a battle between good and evil, was passé; instead, a battle between two forms of goodness might produce a different kind of theatre. So, politics took on the form of a struggle between a goodness that is silent and a goodness that refuses to be silent. This was an odd battle: on the one hand there was a prime minister, a 'good man'; on the other, a Gandhian stridently offering an old-fashioned goodness that demands an overt commitment to truth. Goodness ambushed goodness, demanding a response: Hazare's goodness asking Singh's goodness to complete the pending reforms of liberalisation, insisting that reforming economics without reforming politics turns democracy into a masquerade and turns governance hypocritical.

Hazare's goodness might appear naïve in the beginning, but it has a toughness that protects it. Hazare captures the new generation's imagination, while Manmohan's goodness strikes some as a defeated brand, a soiled tactic. The prime minister rises to the occasion and yet his weak halo seems a poor answer, a correct dinner-table etiquette before a Moses of ethics. Singh offers legislation, the cover of law, when society asked for ethics.

A further irony enters. Corruption has its own confidence. Paragons of virtue might repel each other but down-to-earth politicians, matter-of-fact middlemen, are happy to conduct commerce and conversation between good and evil. Professional politicians such as Vilasrao Deshmukh and Pranab Mukherjee strike a deal and a fast is broken; Singh watches quietly, rendered a bit actor in a play in which he, technically, has a leading part. Weak goodness becomes defensive, pleads for itself, losing a sense of its ruggedness. Meanwhile, Hazare sips his lemon juice laced with honey, and a political drama is temporarily over. Politics has created a check-dam around goodness, with promissory notes from standing committees.

The politician easily admits to the faults of the Congress as natural ailments of the body, while the statesman watches silently. Manmohan's stance creates an antiseptic distance, resorting to silence about what he cannot stomach but simply has to tolerate. The fate of goodness in a corrupt polity appears doomed. Singh looks tired and sluggish, as if his magic has failed to work. He seems to have lost his mana, that potent blend of force, trust and competence that made him an ideal prime minister. He is still in power but one senses age catching up – or, rather, that Rahul Gandhi's persona is catching up with Manmohan's age. History seems hungry for change, and unfair to a man who orchestrated so much of it. There is an irony to this situation. An honest man suddenly is being told that his personal integrity is not enough.

As the Hazare chorus droned on piously, reciting its future plans like a drab shopping list, one's sympathy remained with Manmohan Singh. But does he have enough of the rustic Punjabi within him to candidly sum up what has happened? He is realistic enough to know that yesterday's revolution typically leaves behind little more than torn posters, chewed upon by cows. Singh is astute enough to realise that if he had initiated the reforms of 'phase II' liberalisation, the institutional reforms to follow economic reforms, he would have been home and dry.

Today, Manmohan Singh sits like a wounded statesman, wondering whether his time is over. History can be ruthless. Yet watching the turmoil, I hope he has the energy to mend fences, to put the Congress back on track. His exit needs to have dignity and grace – his career demands that much.

Shiv Vishvanathan teaches in Ahmedabad.

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