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There's more to Dr Singh than meets the eye

May 22, 2009 14:12 IST

There's more to him than meets the eye

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Manmohan Singh is a hugely under-rated politician, a party colleague said recently on television. If you were to judge by the end results, that is certainly the case, for who else has had a political career spanning 18 years that has seen no accidents, no scandal, but a long period on a continuous ascendant?

He survived five years as finance minister, with his place in history secure. He then served as party leader in the Rajya Sabha, and has survived five years as prime minister when few would have bet on it in 2004. Now he has the rare privilege of starting his second term -- with no one questioning his mandate, or dismissing him as 'weak'.

To be sure, a lot of this is because of the unwavering support and commitment of Sonia Gandhi, but she could have chosen any of several others. If, initially, Dr Singh had greatness thrust on him, he has also acquired greatness. If he has never won a Lok Sabha election but can become the natural leader of a country of nearly 1.2 billion people, there must be more to him than meets the eye.

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Image: Dr Singh addresses the media after meeting with President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhawan
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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A different sort of politician

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What is visible are his obvious qualities: An intellect that few can match, wisdom about men and matters acquired over a lifetime in the government, deep understanding of how the Indian system works and how much it can be pushed, unimpeachable integrity that gives him a Teflon protection from the doings of corrupt colleagues, a self-effacing humility, and unfailing courtesy to others.

For these and other reasons, people now recognise him as a good and decent man who will do only what is right for the country, and who commands respect in the councils of the world. There aren't many Indian politicians about whom you can say either of the two.

Two favourite dictums have defined his politics. As finance minister, he was fond of quoting Victor Hugo, that there is nothing in the world as powerful as an idea whose time has come. But if the 'idea' then was market-oriented reforms, as prime minister, he has tacked to a new wind.

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Image: Dr Singh with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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Essence of his prime ministership

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The person he quotes to friends these days is Bismarck, that politics is the art of the possible. Indeed, the essence of his prime ministership is that he has tried to beaver away at things that need doing, without seeking a profile for himself or swimming against the political currents.

It is not an accident that, in five years, he has held only one press conference in the country, and given no interviews to the Indian media. He has allowed others to influence if not dictate to him the choice of ministerial colleagues, the programmes on which money should be showered, the misdoings to which he should turn a blind eye.

It would seem that he has taken to heart the old 'serenity prayer' -- 'God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference'.

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Image: Dr Singh in conversation with Trinamool Congress party chief Mamata Banerjee
Photographs: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters
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Understanding Dr Singh

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His colleagues offer a long list: The educational initiatives he has launched, to set up new institutes of technology for instance; the rural health mission; the urban renewal mission; an ambitious action plan on minority welfare and uplift that was put together after the Sachar report.

A multi-mission project is now ready to address climate change, and he has promised major administrative reform to deal with the poor standards of governance. It is typical of Dr Singh that while all of these address basic issues, none of them has the mass appeal of the rural employment guarantee programme (about which he was initially sceptical).

It can be difficult to figure out when he is speaking his mind, and when he is merely following the party line. As finance minister, he argued publicly that "You cannot spend your way to prosperity"-- this was in response to largesse announced by PV Narasimha Rao from the Red Fort on Independence Day. As prime minister, he has opened the fiscal tap like no one before him. As finance minister, he spoke out courageously against crony capitalism -- which, ironically, has flourished in the last five years.

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Image: Dr Singh with US President Barack Obama during their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in London
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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Dr Singh's nuclear politics

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But he cannot be pushed beyond a point, as L K Advani found out after Dr Singh rounded on him in the wake of the "weak PM" attack. When it came to the Indo-US nuclear deal, he was willing to resign, just as he was as Reserve Bank of India governor when he was pressured to allow a bank branch for a questionable Pakistani bank, and when as finance minister he got no political support for his proposal to reduce fertiliser subsidies.

Typically, he saw in the nuclear deal merits that had nothing to do with the splitting of the atom: "If the world sees you as America's friend, many countries start dealing with you differently," he once said. "This deal will open many doors for India."

While people recognise the nuclear deal as one of his achievements, few are conscious of the enormous groundwork and shuttle diplomacy that was done before 45 countries signed on the dotted line -- it had to be unanimous, or there was going to be no breakthrough. Dr Singh marshalled his forces and monitored progress down to the wire.

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Image: Dr Singh toasts with Japanese business leaders during a luncheon in Tokyo
Photographs: Issei Kato/Reuters
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Dr Singh managed the impossible

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He can be a good negotiator too. Few remember that it was Manmohan Singh who was sent to work out an alliance between the Congress and the People's Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir after the state elections there in 2002.

Mindful of how important it was to provide stability to this sensitive border state, and making sure the government was a truly representative one, Dr Singh managed the impossible: A rotating chief ministership between the Congress -- led by Ghulam Nabi Azad -- and the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led PDP. The relationship unravelled six months ahead of the 2008 assembly elections.

But by acting as an honest broker, he managed to put in place an arrangement that won the confidence of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

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Image: Dr Singh with Mufti Mohammed Syed (Left) and Ghulam Nabi Azad (Right)
Photographs: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
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A full second term in office?

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This quality came in handy when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati called him to congratulate him after the Lok Sabha victory.

He won her over by referring to her as 'my younger sister'.

From anyone else, it might have sounded cheesy. From Dr Singh, it was the equivalent of a garland: An open-minded embrace of the socially deprived. Similarly, it was healthy pragmatism on the part of the Samajwadi Party, but also Dr Singh's reaching out to the SP leaders, that saved his government from falling in the late summer of 2008.

The big question, of course, is the same as it was in 2004: Will he stay for a full five years or, this time round, might he move to Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2013, when he turns 80? In a recent interview, Pranab Mukherjee said: "He is our Prime Minister and will stay for four or five years." Four or five?

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Image: A party worker installs hoarding showing pictures of Dr Manmohan Singh, Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Amit Gupta/Reuters
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