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The Return of Manmohan Singh

By Shekhar Gupta
December 31, 2018 10:35 IST
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He is talking, making sense, and India is listening.
Rahul Gandhi needs to listen to him, too, says Shekhar Gupta.

File photo of former PM Manmohan Singh at Tirupati Temple. Photograph: Rediff archives

IMAGE: Dr Manmohan Singh at the Tirupati temple.

Most of the commentariat had written Manmohan Singh's political obituaries nearly five years back. So had I. Did we imagine we will be writing articles about his return as 2018 ends and we enter another election year?

He is no longer the silent 'Maun Mohan'. He does speak now, though very little, very measured. Usually, just a couple of sentences. But when he does, India listens. Even a routine -- and drab as usual -- formal speech by him goes viral online.

Check social media trends. Anything he says spreads.



He hasn't suddenly become an election campaigner for the Congress. But in Parliament and outside, he is now its most weighty voice. See the impact his short, clinical and firm statement on Urjit Patel's resignation. Or, his comment at the release of his books last week, where he said he wasn't a silent prime minister. He was never afraid to answer questions from the press.


This was brilliantly loaded and skilful political wit, in a Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana (aiming some place, hitting some place else) approach. He used self-deprecation, using an obvious weakness of his own to attack Narendra Damodardas Modi.

Dr Manmohan Singh at the launch of the book, Changing India. Photograph: INCIndia/Twitter

IMAGE: Dr Manmohan Singh at the launch of Changing India. Photograph: INCIndia/Twitter

A comeback of this kind isn't bad for a non-politician at 86. Younger partymen, many of whom dissed him in his second term, plotted a switch to a 'more political' prime minister, namely Pranab Mukherjee, ran circles around him, got his decisions rescinded by 10, Janpath or theirs thrust on him, have spent their time in the wilderness writing books.

They began seeking him out to release them initially, because he had the time, stature: At least enough to dignify your customary group photo holding the book on the stage.

Lately, such appearances by him make headlines, ensuring greater press for the book, and backing for his party's politics.

He still isn't a people's man. He speaks little and choose his words carefully. That's been his style ever since he entered public life.

When the first scam (Harshad Mehta) hit the stock markets and his government was under a cloud, all he said in Parliament was 'I won't lose my sleep over the stock market.' But when he spoke to defend his government in the vote over the nuclear deal, he unleashed the most defiant lines from Guru Gobind Singh: 'Deh Shiva var mohe...Nischey kar apni jeet karoon (Bless me O Shiva, so I must have the strength to fight until my victory).'

Then he mocked L K Advani for continuing to live by his astrologer's promise that he will become prime minister one day.

IMAGE: Then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh speaks to a farmer in Maharashtra.

His second term in 2009 came with higher numbers for his party, counter-intuitively as a reward for his incumbency. People voted him back so resoundingly not because they saw him as a weak or a meek leader. He had just risked his government, braved a desertion by the Left, in defence of his philosophical belief that India needed to make a full strategic shift: The real import of the nuclear deal was an embrace of the US as an ally.

He was rewarded for being strong later, philosophically, when Mr Modi took his policy forward instead of reversing it.

What happened subsequently we tracked in detail, including in a 2015 piece when we said he had let himself and his fans (including this columnist) down by not resigning when his party bosses were undermining him and his office.

The provocation for that article was the pain at seeing him being questioned by the CBI in connection with a coal scam case.

Mr Modi also mocked him in Parliament for claiming to be clean while allowing corruption under his watch with that 'standing in the shower in a rain-coat' line. He was still a soft target.

So, what changed then?


It was probably demonetisation in the winter of 2016. He spoke little, but an uncharacteristically cutting and memorable line: 'Organised loot and systematic plunder.' This is the first time his own party seems to have realised the weight he still carried.

Demonetisation was a sitter for him because economics is his domain. Later, as the economy drifted, professional economists in key positions left, 'fixing"'of data began, and a sense of crisis grew, his words were sounding prophetic.

In the marketplace of politics, as in any other, product differentiation is invaluable. One reason he is again being taken seriously is that in this bitter, broken politics, there is a premium on dignity and decency.

When Narendra Damodardas Modi calls Sonia Gandhi a rent-seeking 'vidhwa (widow) and Rahul Gandhi says 'chowkidar chor hai' (the watchman, or the prime minister, is a thief) Manmohan Singh stands out for classiness even in his criticism.

He is not the only one. That Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh nearly swung the miracle of a fourth term despite farm strife underlines the premium people now also put on understated humility.

In my 'Walk the Talk' interview, I had asked P V Narasimha Rao what he brought to the table when he had so little charisma, oratory or political weight. "I bring solace," said the old man.

As Manmohan Singh's political mentor, he would have been happy to see him make the same contribution -- at least for his party. Because if Rao brought solace to a crises-ridden India, Dr Singh is bringing solace and credibility his reviving party needs.

There is, however, a big difference between the post-retirement lives of the two former prime ministers. The Congress saw no utility in Rao once power was lost. He was dumped. He fought his corruption cases all by himself, and died a lonely but vindicated man, having been cleared in all cases.

The party would have done the same to Manmohan Singh. He, with his 'anti-poor' reform economics, inability to prevent scandals, would be the ideal man to blame for that 2014 disaster of 44.

Another A K Antony report would have said pretty much what the first said while blaming Rao and his 'suit-boot' economics for the 1996 defeat.

IMAGE: Then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh speaks to the Indian American community.

Three things made a difference:

  • First, the personal affection in which the Gandhi family held him.
  • Second, the impact they saw him make with his initial statement on demonetisation.
  • And third, the judicial unravelling of all the mega-scams of his tenure, notably 2G and coal.

Which brings us to our final point, and a question. Will Rahul Gandhi's Congress just leverage his voice now, or also listen to him?

Dr Singh, who lives very modestly, has been the greatest wealth creator for India in its modern history, and the least judgemental about the legitimate, tax-paying rich. Check all data from 1991 onwards.

He's a man of no riches, but had no prejudice against wealth creation in this deeply, hypocritically socialist polity.

He is the only prime minister with the conviction to use an expression like revive the 'animal spirit' of the country's economy.

He also had the intellect to acknowledge that growth inevitably creates inequality. It is then for the State to intervene, redistribute and support the poor, who, in turn, can't be left to the mercy of the markets.

IMAGE: Congress President Rahul Gandhi greets Dr Manmohan Singh. Photograph: INCIndia/Twitter

He must watch in great concern as his party, under Rahul Gandhi, unleashes an economic rhetoric of its distant, disastrous past, where 'Ambani-Adani' are what evil 'Tata-Birla; were to the 1970s, when loan waivers are showered from campaign helicopters and holy PSUs are back in full glory.

He must wince as Rahul Gandhi goes plugging HAL as the best company to make a frontline Western fighter jet like the Rafale. Dr Singh would know it can't happen.

The question, therefore, is, with nothing to lose now, will Dr Singh give Rahul Gandhi a tutorial on modern, reformed economics? Or will he again lapse into his 2010-2014 'What-can-I-do?' type helpless self-pity?

We need to also watch if Rahul Gandhi would listen to him this second time around.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

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