Just when it looked like he was be­ing crushed un­der the load of other peo­ple’s sins, Man­mo­han Singh has bounced back with all his shine.

Southasia - - Cover story - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

In­dia shines bright un­der the ar­tic­u­late

lead­er­ship of Man­mo­han Singh.

That he is squeak­ing clean, is ad­mit­ted even by his worst po­lit­i­cal ri­vals. Lu­cre is of course out of the ques­tion. But even other kinds of corruption com­mon in poli- tics, such as fa­voritism or nepo­tism do not stain Man­mo­han Singh’s shiny es­cutcheon, for which he has earned var­i­ous tempt­ing so­bri­quets.

In 2010, a Newsweek ar­ti­cle de- scribed Mr. Singh as “the leader other lead­ers love,” quot­ing for­mer IAEA chief Mo­hamed ElBa­radei, as say­ing that Dr. Singh is “the model of what a po­lit­i­cal leader should be.” He was

also num­ber 18 on the 2010 Forbes list of the world’s most pow­er­ful peo­ple. The mag­a­zine de­scribed him as be­ing “uni­ver­sally praised as In­dia’s best prime min­is­ter since Nehru.”

It was the fi­nan­cial wizard Man­mo­han Singh that put In­dia on the path of eco­nomic progress in 1991 with his re­forms as fi­nance min­is­ter in the P.V. Narasimha Rao gov­ern­ment. He re­placed what had come to be called “li­cense raj” un­der Nehru’s so­cial­ist dis­pen­sa­tion with the mar­ket econ­omy for which, long time cabi­net min­is­ter and one of his col­leagues in the present gov­ern­ment, P. Chi­dambaram has called him the Deng Xiaop­ing of In­dia.

Singh is a tech­no­crat, not a politi­cian. He never won a Lok Sabha seat but has al­ways been a Ra­jya Sabha mem­ber. Yet, when the Congress swept to power de­feat­ing the BJP-led Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance (NDA) in 2004, the party pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi, stepped aside to make room for him as prime min­is­ter.

The next year Prime Min­is­ter Singh in­tro­duced Value Added Tax re­plac­ing the sales tax and, more im­por­tantly, he ini­ti­ated dis­cus­sion with the United States for a civil nu­clear arms agree­ment. Also called the 123 agree­ment, the deal was signed in 2008.

Singh started his sec­ond term in 2009. But this time his ten­ure is marred by ma­jor scan­dals re­lat­ing to abuse of po­lit­i­cal power by mem­bers of his gov­ern­ment, theft, vote buy­ing and mas­sive corruption in­volv­ing more than $80 bil­lion. One sin­gle case of the 2G spec­trum scam un­der for­mer telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, A. Raja that shook the coun­try, al­legedly caused a loss of $39 bil­lion to the ex­che­quer.

True to his call­ing as a tech­no­crat, Singh is un­used to blovi­at­ing like politi­cians. In speech po­lite and in dress and de­port­ment un­os­ten­ta­tious yet dig­ni­fied, no Gucci shoes, Ar­mani suits or Ray-Ban glasses for him. In­stead the prime min­is­ter of the world’s largest democ­racy, “sits slumped on the front bench, his brow fur­rowed above large, brown­rimmed spec­ta­cles, his arms crossed over his tra­di­tional white smock,” keep­ing his cool as op­po­si­tion mem­bers wag their fin­gers, wave plac­ards, and ex­er­cise their lungs to de­nounce un­prece­dented gov­ern­ment corruption.

And yet, to the baf­fle­ment of ob­servers, Singh goes on tick­ing. The storm passes him by. His “im­pec­ca­ble rep­u­ta­tion among the vot­ing pub­lic ap­pears undi­min­ished.” The elec­torate stead­fastly be­lieves “their soft-spo­ken, unas­sum­ing leader is the only clean politi­cian left in In­dia.” The com­mon feel­ing is “If he was cor­rupt, he would have stolen money when he was fi­nance min­is­ter.” No Congress leader, not even Rahul Gandhi can re­place him in pub­lic trust.

Atul Mishra, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Cen­tral Univer­sity of Gu­jarat, Gand­hi­na­gar, at­tributes Singh’s staying qual­ity to a “re­mark­ably deft tac­tic whereby his per­sonal in­tegrity has been sub­sti­tuted for rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness.”

“The em­pha­sis on his unim­peach­able per­sonal in­tegrity, re­in­forced by the me­dia, has al­lowed him to lev­i­tate clean above the pit­falls of coali­tion pol­i­tics,” ob­serves Mishra, adding, “An ‘apo­lit­i­cal’ prime min­is­ter, with tech­no­cratic work ethics, has trans­formed In­dian pol­i­tics in scope per­haps ex­ceed­ing Nehru.”

Yet, when he has his mo­ment Singh ex­hibits his iron will and meets his op­po­nents head on. One such mo­ment was when U.S. sup­port for In­dia’s power plans and the civil nu­clear arms agree­ment with the United States came un­der the op­po­si­tion’s fire.

Singh put his fu­ture on the line, called for a vote of con­fi­dence, and won! It was as close a call as could be, but the vic­tory was a for­eign pol­icy land­mark and raised his stock so high that TV chan­nels pro­claimed, “Singh is king.” They were “com­par­ing the prime min­is­ter, in his trade­mark babyblue tur­ban and pro­fes­so­rial glasses, to the pro­tag­o­nist of one of that year’s most pop­u­lar Bol­ly­wood movies.”

Mo­hali was an­other Singh mo­ment. Since last Novem­ber his gov­ern­ment has been par­a­lyzed by scan­dals. Talks be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan have stalled fol­low­ing the Mum­bai at­tacks. Enough rea­son for Singh to feel de­pressed and seek a break­through.

En­ter the ICC World Cup. The semi-fi­nal be­tween Pak­istan and In­dia pro­vided the golden op­por­tu­nity for him to shake off the blues and re­gain the ini­tia­tive through his suc­cess­ful “cricket diplo­macy.”

In­dia’s win over Pak­istan, watched by Singh and his Pak­istani coun­ter­part, Yousaf Raza Gi­lani, trig­gered eu­pho­ria among the busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal elite in the Mo­hali Sta­dium, af­ter months of scan­dal had tar­nished In­dia’s im­age as an emerg­ing global power.

Singh’s in­vi­ta­tion to Gi­lani was his per­sonal idea as it came from his own, prime min­is­te­rial of­fice, in­stead of his for­eign min­is­ter’s. The de­ci­sion drew plau­dits for help­ing kick start talks on a va­ri­ety of se­cu­rity is­sues be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan in limbo since the 2008 Mum­bai at­tacks. But just as im-

por­tant was the per­cep­tion of a prime min­is­ter back in the sad­dle.

The Asian Age news­pa­per, ran the head­line, “Singh is King,” re­peat­ing the jin­gle last played when Singh won a 2008 con­fi­dence vote. “Man­mo­han’s Mo­hali hunch pays off” was the head­line in the Times of In­dia.

His as­sertive­ness and So­nia Gandhi’s ap­pear­ance at the match in a sym­bolic show of sup­port from In­dia’s most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal fig­ure should be enough to quash any spec­u­la­tion about Singh los­ing of­fice any time soon.

“His tim­ing was fan­tas­tic,” said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ma­hesh Ran­gara­jan, com­ment­ing on his cricket diplo­macy. “His com­bat­ive mood just had to hap­pen.” It proved once again that “nor­mally he is a quiet per­son, but when- ever he is pushed and he thinks it’s nec­es­sary, he does it.”

Ob­servers view it as a tip­ping point that could also her­ald “a new im­pe­tus to push re­forms, such as al­low­ing for­eign in­vest­ment into the mod­ern su­per­mar­ket sec­tor, seen as nec­es­sary to help In­dia com­pete with the likes of China.”

And if he em­barks on such a course, there will be no im­ped­i­ment in his way. The BJP in spite of its end­less list of em­bar­rass­ing charges against the Singh gov­ern­ment is in no shape to mount a se­ri­ous cam­paign against Congress. What it lacks is a cam­paign mes­sage to gal­va­nize the elec­torate. Sim­ply paint­ing Congress as the party of graft does not gel with the elec­torate.

BJP, once a for­mi­da­ble po­lit­i­cal party, is cur­rently led by “a bunch of el­derly politi­cians, na­tion­ally un­pop­u­lar fig­ures, and in­ex­pe­ri­enced po­lit­i­cal play­ers.” It does not have a “clear can­di­date for the top job and a de­fined struc­ture to or­ga­nize a cam­paign that would find ap­peal across In­dia’s di­verse pop­u­la­tion of 1.2 bil­lion.”

The Congress also be­lieves it could do well in state elec­tions this year where the op­po­si­tion, Bharatiya Janata Party, and its al­lies have ap­par­ently lit­tle chance of vic­tory. Yet it must heed the ad­vice of its well-wish­ers to wash the stains of corruption that have dis­fig­ured its im­age in time for the next gen­eral elec­tions in 2014. The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and the for­mer edi­tor of SouthAsia Mag­a­zine.

Man­mo­han Singh’s per­sona and peo­ple-friendly poli­cies are con­ducive to the Congress Party’s

po­lit­i­cal stand­ing in In­dia.

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