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.
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.