How will history judge Manmohan Singh?

Last Updated: Sun, Apr 13, 2014 13:58 hrs

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in stately South Block on Raisina Hill has fallen quiet.

Manmohan Singh is seldom seen here these days. His staff is in the process of winding up. Personal belongings, especially his many books, are being packed. Since this is election time, no official meetings are taking place and bureaucratic appointments have been put on hold.

At one level, Singh seems to have gone into retirement mode: he has addressed just three rallies so far and is making time for the family. At another level, he is fully engaged with his job, though instead of 18 hours, he is working 11 hours out of his home, 7 Race Course Road.

And if he was clearing 300 files a day earlier, he is now handling half that number.

Those who know him well say he is still trying to push change: genetically-modified crops, fiscal consolidation, balancing internal politics and external policy, and some projects here and there.

It's unreasonable to expect the man who hasn't taken a day's leave in 10 years, except when he underwent a multiple bypass surgery in 2009, to stop abruptly. "When he doesn't have work, he looks miserable," says a close relative requesting not to be named.

But quieter times lie ahead. A month or so from now, Singh will relinquish charge as prime minister and move with wife Gursharan Kaur into 3 Motilal Nehru Place which was, till a few months ago, the official residence of Delhi's former chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.

The century-old, four-bedroom corner bungalow, spread over 3.5 acres, will be the couple's home for life. It is now being readied for them. Security cameras are being fitted, the wooden floor is being removed to restore the original mosaic floor and new furniture is being bought.

At 7 Race Course Road too, stocktaking is on. Stuff that will go with the couple is being separated from what will be handed over to the house's new occupant or to schools and charitable institutes.

For the next four years, Singh remains a Rajya Sabha member. So there will be frequent public appearances. But when his colleagues ask him what else he intends to do, Singh says: "I am still doing my job. Now I deserve some rest."

He does have an offer to teach in Cambridge University, but is yet to make up his mind. There are people who would want him to write a memoir, "but that is not going to happen," says a member of his family.

He has already made it clear that some things are meant to be taken to the grave. His former media advisor Sanjaya Baru's book, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, has just hit the stands, right in the middle of the ongoing general elections.

"He would have preferred the book to have come out at a later date and not while he is still in office," says an official Singh has spoken to about this. So, while a memoir is "out of the question," the relative says "he is looking forward to catching up with all the books he has missed out on because of his busy schedule. Biographies and autobiographies particularly interest him".

There is a good chance that he might write once in a while. "Even while reading newspapers, he writes and makes notes," says the relative.

A strong view is that he will play the role of advisor to Sonia Gandhi and guide to Rahul Gandhi. Over the last 10 years, there have been reports of friction between him and the mother-son duo. But it would be a fallacy to think that Sonia will dump Singh.

"They talk to each other all the time," says a PMO official. "No decision is taken without consulting each other."

Those in the know say Singh is among the Gandhi family's closest confidants and advisors. Sonia discusses the problems in the party and even matters concerning Rahul with him and values his advice because she considers it to be totally selfless.

"She knows he is not somebody who would ever try to upstage her or Rahul. He has no great political ambitions, unlike Pranab Mukherjee," says someone who has followed their relationship closely.

There is a lot of curiosity about what might be going on in Singh's mind as he readies to demit office. The popular, though not necessarily well-informed, view is that various political snubs in the last five years have sapped his energy and enthusiasm and he has withdrawn into his shell.

The Sharm el-Sheikh fiasco, when Singh invited sharp criticism for issuing a joint statement with the Pakistan prime minister, barely seven months after the Mumbai terror attack, delinking the composite dialogue process from terrorism, and his government's ordinance on convicted MPs and MLAs being publicly termed "complete nonsense" by Rahul are but a few examples.

To his friends, he has more than once expressed his exasperation over the Comptroller & Auditor General's observation that the spectrum and coal scams cost the government Rs 1,76,000 crore and Rs 1,86,000 crore, respectively.

This, he has told them, would keep people in the government from taking real-time decisions. Ministers paid him little attention during cabinet meetings. Some openly defied his directives. Others like Andimuthu Raja pulled wool over his eyes.

Then Singh had to battle the perception that he was a mere figurehead - the real power lay with Sonia. A guest invited to his home for dinner remembers there were two tables laid out; Singh was the host on one and Sonia on the other. All the guests wanted to sit at Sonia's table - the prime minister was embarrassingly ignored in his own home.

The signs of this helplessness were visible at a book release function at Vigyan Bhawan in 2012. All the three speakers had come down heavily on his government, one with humour and the other two bluntly.

When the organiser asked Singh if he would like to say something in defence, he demurred. Finally, he said if there were no problems, life wouldn't be worth living. Last year in August, at another book-release function, this time at 7 Race Course Road, Singh was surrounded by his kind of people: academicians, journalists, economists, professionals.

"But as he walked in and moved around, it was evident that he could not communicate with any of them," says somebody who was present at the event. "He is clearly a very lonely man now." Later, when a journalist asked him about the falling rupee, Singh, after he had given the stock answer, complained to C Rangarajan (former Reserve Bank of India governor and chairman of the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council) that he was being asked about the rupee and what should he say. Rangarajan rattled off the usual response.

"Coming from the prime minister who is rated as a successful economist, this was startling," says the guest. The impression everybody carried back home that day was that Singh had switched off.

Some people insist that he isn't thick-skinned and tough enough to be India's prime minister. "He is a good files man, efficient at paper work, but being the prime minister requires you to take tough and effective decisions.

I don't think he is very good at that," says VK Gupta, an economist who was Singh's student at the economics department in Panjab University, Chandigarh, in 1963.

In his book, Baru writes how "Singh not only resisted the temptation to spy on his colleagues, but gave up even the opportunity to be offered such information by declining to take a daily briefing from the intelligence chiefs.

He was the first prime minister not to do so. The chiefs of both the IB [Intelligence Bureau] and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) were told to report to the NSA [National Security Advisor] instead." He also writes that while Singh "was himself incorruptible, and also ensured that no one in his immediate family ever did anything wrong, he did not feel answerable for the misdemeanours of his colleagues and subordinates."

Singh's detractors have often tried to push the view that he is an overrated economist and an underrated politician, but then some of his oldest associates also seem to agree with this. "Whatever the criticism, he is an extremely decent person, one who seems to have lost his smile in the last two or three years," says Gupta. "It is as though he is experiencing some internal suffocation and my heart goes out to him."

Still other acquaintances say that Singh has been tentative even at the best of times, and people read this as detachment. As finance minister (1991 to 1996), he would ask his colleagues and even guests to feel his pulse to see if he was tense. But he was far more communicative and assertive then.

 After PV Narasimha Rao had announced a string of expenditure programmes, following electoral reverses in some southern states, Singh had told an interviewer that the government could not hope to spend its way to prosperity. Imagine him saying that to Sonia. On another occasion, he had pressed ahead with a devaluation of the rupee, though Narasimha Rao didn't want it.

He had told the prime minister that the devaluation had been initiated and it would be difficult to jettison it midway. There is also a streak of self-pity in him. When he was member secretary in the Planning Commission in the 1980s, a visitor found him in torn shoes.

Singh claimed he didn't have money to buy a new pair. The visitor found this hard to believe because Singh had just returned from a stint abroad. There is, therefore, an uncanny consistency in the way people from his past and present describe him. "I would call him a wobbler who has always wanted to present himself as a gymnast," says a former colleague from Chandigarh who has known him for several decades.

To top it, Singh has a bureaucratic mind that believes in securing safety for oneself first. When he was the finance minister, on every file that had any whiff of controversy Singh would put his standard comments: please discuss. In some controversial cases (like the Harshad Mehta scam), his detailed notings seeking utmost care and attention to all issues saved the day for him.

Even in the spectrum scam, he is known to have advised his personal staff to deal with the issue in a manner that he should not be dragged into it. Like a true middle-class Indian, he worries about his reputation much more than what is right or wrong.

At the same time, there is ample evidence that he has been full of energy even when accusations of inactivity were being piled on him from all directions. At the annual Business Standard awards function in end-2011 in Delhi, when the spectrum scam controversy was at its worst, he told the audience comprising the biggest names in business that he hadn't disappointed 20 years ago and he wouldn't do so now.

Those who have known him well insist that he perked up again in 2012 when Mukherjee left the finance minister's office (to become the president) and P Chidambaram moved in. More recently, he fought hard to whittle down the National Advisory Council's entitlement proposals in the Food Security Bill. "Had those entitlements been factored in, there would be no grain left in the country," says an observer.

Still, Singh will find it hard to shrug off the image of being non-communicative. Congress leaders have started to say openly that their chances wouldn't have been so dismal in the ongoing elections if only Singh had communicated better. As time draws to a close, the PMO is making last ditch efforts to disprove the perception "He has made nearly 1,200 speeches in 10 years.

He has addressed 33 press conferences," says Pankaj Pachauri, Singh's media advisor, handing out recent documents about the work the party and the prime minister have done over the years. Pachauri has been on television to correct this image. Though the PMO is on Twitter, Singh made it clear that he did not want a personal account or any public relations agency promoting him. "He is averse to any form of personal glorification," says Pachauri.

Singh is an enigma wrapped in a mystery because his face never gives anything away. But his body language does, says the relative quoted earlier, adding that the only person who really knows the whole of him is his wife, Gursharan Kaur. "Everybody else, including his closest family, knows only slices of him."

People from Singh's circle of friends insist that he is not bitter or pained, though he may be relieved at no longer having to fix an unworkable situation. "He has a philosophical bent of mind and I have found him cracking witty one-liners even in the midst of the worst crisis," says an acquaintance. "He will busy himself with poetry or philosophy and not brood over the flak he has drawn in the last few years."

The point is corroborated by another incident that Singh's adviser and technocrat Sam Pitroda narrates: "After the finance minister of the United Kingdom met the prime minister, he told me, 'It was as though I had met god. He was dressed in white and was so calm. I was puzzled; how could the prime minister of such a large, complex country not show any sign of stress, anxiety or irritation? I could not deal with him'."

Not for nothing does Barack Obama call Singh his guru. "He has survived because he looks upon a job as a job - even if it is the prime minister's post - and not as a profession to be pursued with passion," says a former colleague while explaining Singh's sangfroid.

He might take his retirement philosophically, but Singh does worry about his place in history. His relentless stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal, even at the risk of his government collapsing, reflected this desire to be a part of history. At his last press conference in January, he listed the nuclear deal as "the highest point of my time as prime minister," and hoped "history will judge me more kindly."

This wasn't the first time he had alluded to this fixation. In 1992, after the Harshad Mehta scam broke out and rumours were afloat that Singh had quit as the finance minister, he told a journalist: "I am sure history will remember me not as a sleeping finance minister."

At another time when asked why Narasimha Rao had chosen him as the finance minister, he said: "He told me, 'We have done a lot in politics, now I want you to do something that will keep us in the history books'."

In the first draft of history at least, he can hope for a mixed verdict.


State of mind

More relief than grief, but there is some worry too over the coal scam. His colleagues say that it is very important for him to be remembered as an honourable man.

When he perks up

"The maximum you can get out of him is a 'good' and if he says 'good' to something, that means he was very pleased with the achievement," says a PMO official.

What gets him frustrated

Chaos in Parliament and not being allowed to speak in the House. The one time he lost his cool was during the ruckus in the Rajya Sabha in 2013. In a rare show of aggression, he took on the Bharatiya Janata Party and said: "The principal opposition has never reconciled itself that it was voted out of power in 2004… Have you ever heard of a situation in any Parliament where the prime minister is not allowed to introduce his council of ministers?"

High point

Indo-US nuclear deal, by his own admission. He risked the collapse of his government to see the deal through and also made it clear that he would step down as prime minister if it was blocked.

Low points

Coal and spectrum allocation scams. "It was he who ordered an investigation into the coal scam, but when people started pointing fingers at him, he was pained and said, 'But we are the ones who ordered the investigation'," says a PMO official.

Close friends

Isher Judge and Montek Singh Ahluwalia


"A lot of people have let him down," says a close relative, "but he is not the kind to hold a grudge or hit back."

What he might do now

Become an unofficial advisor to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi; has an open offer to teach at Cambridge University; intends to catch up with books, particularly biographies and autobiographies.

Net worth on retirement*

Assets worth Rs 11.40 crore, including immovable property worth Rs 7.52 crore . These include a 1996 model Maruti 800; a 2,907-sq-ft double storey house in Chandigarh; and a 1,495-sq-ft flat in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

* Declaration made during Rajya Sabha nomination in 2013

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