A Man Out of Time

The silent fall of Manmohan Singh
Excerpts from Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy, by Simon Denyer | Bloomsbury | 440 pages | Rs 599
Legacy

When he took office as Prime Minister back in 2004, Singh seemed to represent the best of Indian politics. Honest as the day is long, intellectually head-and- shoulders above your average politician, he embodied the hope that India might write a new chapter in its democratic history. Those hopes were, in the long run, cruelly dashed. During the next nine years, Singh struggled and failed to impose his will on a government and a system that seemed irredeemably corrupt.

The story of Singh’s dramatic fall from grace and the slow but steady tarnishing of his reputation played out in parallel with his country’s decline on his watch. As the economy slowed, and as India’s reputation for corruption reasserted itself, the idea that this nation was on an inexorable road to becoming a global power came increasingly into question. The irony is that Singh’s greatest selling points—his incorruptibility and economic experience—became the mirror image of his government’s greatest failings.

This is the story of how an honest economist came to be running a corrupt government that threatened to ruin India’s economy. It is the story of how Singh’s humility and his loyalty, the very qualities for which he was chosen by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi to lead the government, proved to be the undoing of his reputation and of his record as a leader. It is the story of how an honourable man was dragged down by the twin evils of corrupt campaign financing and dynastic rule lurking at the heart of India’s dysfunctional democracy...

His humility was bound up in an immense shyness, which prevented him asserting himself when it really mattered for the future of his country. His loyalty to Sonia Gandhi was so strong that, in the words of Ramachandra Guha, it bordered on ‘obsequiousness’. It also prevented him doing anything to rock the boat—even when that boat of government was already sinking fast.

Manmohan Singh’s beginnings were certainly humble. He was born in 1932 in what is now Pakistan, in a drought-prone village, he later recalled, ‘with no drinking water supply, no electricity, no hospital, no roads and nothing that we today associate with modern living’. His father was a dry fruits trader and the family was not well off. But Singh’s ambition and appetite for hard work was apparent even then: he walked miles to school every day and studied by the light of a kerosene lamp.

The family moved to India shortly before the violent Partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The poor refugee boy won a series of scholarships that allowed him to continue those studies in India, then at Cambridge, where he took a first-class honours degree in Economics, and finally at Oxford, where he completed a PhD. His sense of public duty, perhaps, propelled him into the Indian bureaucracy, where his intellect and dedication marked him as a rising star. Singh went on to run India’s central bank, and later its Planning Commission, the government department reporting directly to the Prime Minister that is supposed to coordinate policy and set long-term goals.

It may be that Singh was perfectly suited to a lifetime in India’s bureaucracy, and in many ways he remains a bureaucrat at heart. But India needed him elsewhere. In 1991, he was dragged into politics by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, and entrusted with the role of Finance Minister at a time of a deep crisis in the Indian economy. It was Singh’s moment, the one he later (modestly) hoped might earn him ‘a footnote in India’s long history’.

Private-sector business in India had been tied down by a complex set of bureaucratic rules that restricted their operations, their investments and their imports, known as the Licence- Permit Raj, but by 1991 the experiment in a centrally planned economy had run its course, as India ran out of foreign exchange. With his back to the wall, and with the encouragement and support of Prime Minister Rao, Singh abolished many of the vestiges of India’s socialist past, freeing up the economy from direct state control, pulling down many of the formidable barriers to starting a business, and cautiously welcoming in foreign investment. It was controversial at the time, but it was to prove to be gloriously successful, with profound and irreversible consequences.

Presenting the budget to Parliament in July 1991, Singh quoted Victor Hugo to argue: ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.’ The idea he had in mind was ‘the emergence of India as a major economic power’. India, he declared confidently, was ‘now wide awake’. As India embarked on a journey towards the centre of the world stage, those words came to symbolize a nation’s rise.

But the man who was dragged into the cut-throat world of Indian politics was never quite at home there. In 1999 his one attempt to run for a parliamentary seat in the middle-class district of South Delhi ended in ignominious defeat. On paper, he was defeated by the BJP, who had held the seat for a decade, but in many ways Singh was defeated by his own party workers, who failed to mobilise the support, including the Muslim votes, that he needed.

His campaign, one media report concluded, had been deliberately sabotaged by senior members of his own Congress party, ironically because they were jealous of Singh’s closeness to Sonia Gandhi and feared—correctly as it turned out—that she might one day nominate him to the Prime Minister’s chair in her place. His wings, in other words, needed to be clipped, and so they were.

In the end, Singh lost by 30,000 votes, a margin of more than 10 per cent. It was a devastating blow to his political self-confidence, and one that was to haunt him many years later when he became Prime Minister. In this episode, perhaps, lie the seeds of his later failings as a political leader. His lack of political self- confidence was a major factor in his inability to impose his will on his own cabinet. Nor, as his career unfolded, was it the last time that Singh’s rise was to incur jealous retribution from within the Congress Party. Nothing, perhaps, invites resentment quite like success.

Still, he remained an important figure within the party, serving for six years as its leader in opposition in India’s upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha. When Congress won a surprise victory in the 2004 elections, Sonia Gandhi followed her ‘inner voice’, rejected her party’s pleadings and renounced the Prime Minister’s role. Instead she nominated Singh, a loyal servant who would serve as a perfect figurehead for her new government. He became, in his words, an ‘accidental prime minister’.

Yet there was a pleasant symmetry in Singh as PM. The architect of economic reforms that had laid the foundations for a sustained boom was now in the perfect place to carry that legacy forward.

Sonia, born to a working-class family in Italy in December 1946 as Edvige Antonia Albina Maino, had been a reluctant entrant into the world of politics, but the pull of the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty had proved hard to resist. She had met husband Rajiv Gandhi while he was studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, and she was at a language school. The couple married and settled in India; he took a job as an airline pilot and they largely avoided the limelight, leaving the politics to his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and his younger brother Sanjay, Indira’s anointed successor.

When Sanjay died in a plane crash in 1980 at the age of 33, Sonia had, in her words, ‘fought like a tigress’ to prevent Rajiv being sucked into politics to replace him. It was a battle she lost. Rajiv was swept to power as prime minister when Indira was assassinated in 1984, only to be assassinated himself in 1991. There was no one left in the family but Sonia to keep the dynasty alive and unite the Congress Party; still, she resisted appeals to take over the Congress Party presidency for a further six years.

In 2004, when she turned down the job of prime minister, there was a certain amount of sycophantic hype about Sonia’s classically Indian qualities of self-sacrifice and renunciation. But this was only part of the story; in reality, Sonia had no intention of completely surrendering the reins of power. Instead, she was to maintain a regal distance from the dirty and demanding world of politics, with Manmohan Singh the convenient mask to hide behind.

From the start, it was obvious that Singh knew who was boss. In public, his instinct was always to walk behind Sonia Gandhi, so meek that she would often have to shoo him forward. In Parliament, at the end of an important debate, it was Singh who would walk up to Gandhi to pay his respects, with palms pressed together in an obedient and respectful namaste. Loyalty, timidity and exaggerated deference: these were consistently to prevent Singh from asserting himself with Gandhi in the years that followed.

Indeed, watching them together in Parliament during important debates was revealing—Sonia was regal but always engaged, shepherding her Congress troops like a commander, dispatching ministers like lieutenants with messages for unruly backbenchers or coalition partners. Singh, by contrast, sat there like a cardboard cut-out, not even cracking a smile when the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate had everyone around him laughing. Many politicians sit in the House with headphones around their ears, which provide simultaneous translation of debates in Hindi and English. During one crucial debate late in his second term, when the future of his government seemed to be on the line, I wondered if Singh had switched the audio feed and was listening to some particularly relaxing music. His eyes were open, but it did not look like anyone was at home.

My own first engagement with Singh typified the man. It was 2004, and dozens of foreign correspondents waited expectantly in the plush confines of his official residence. Singh’s media adviser, Sanjaya Baru, a suave, articulate and self-confident former newspaper editor, emerged to greet us. The Prime Minister, he said, had requested that our questions be directed solely towards foreign policy issues. Singh, he added, did not want to speak about domestic politics. Oh, and yes, everything would be off the record anyway.

A few minutes later, Singh himself walked in, an elderly figure with a neatly combed white beard, immaculately dressed in his trademark light-blue turban, and wearing glasses. Nervously clearing his throat into the microphone, Singh began with a barely audible apology for having a sore throat.

‘I have been told,’ he said, ‘that I should only talk about foreign policy issues, and not about domestic politics.’ I had not long moved from Pakistan, where President General Pervez Musharraf only ever admitted to being ‘told’ to do one thing and by one person—that he should run the country, by God—because he was the only person suitable. Singh, it seemed, was not even master of his own press conference.

What followed was no less disappointing: more than an hour of foreign policy platitudes, which consisted of a declaration of friendship and partnership with almost every nation under the sun. All uttered in Singh’s dull monotone. Even if it had been on the record, there would have been precious little here to report.

In a world of self-promoting, self-satisfied and self-interested politicians, Singh’s meek and humble nature had seemed like an asset at the time. In the end, it was to prove more of a handicap.

For a while, though, the Gandhi-Singh double act seemed to work, and the India success story seemed destined to continue as before. She was the glue that kept the Congress Party together; he kept the sun off her face. The economy surfed the waves of a global boom, and then deftly avoided the subsequent crash in 2008. World leaders flocked to Delhi to meet Singh and court business deals in what promised to be the new China. The cardboard- cut-out prime minister was trotted out to smile meekly next to everyone from Bush to Putin, from Hu Jintao to Sarkozy, in a long string of photo opportunities...

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Despite the inexorable decline in his reputation, Manmohan Singh decided not to resign. My story about him ran on 4 September 2012. Just ten days later, he finally woke from his long slumber.

A decision to allow foreign investment in supermarkets and department stores had long been mooted; it was announced in 2011 only to be withdrawn as the government’s coalition allies kicked up a stink about the impact it could have on India’s legion of small shopkeepers. Then, on 14 September 2012, Man- mohan Singh told a cabinet committee that the decision could no longer be delayed. ‘We have to bite the bullet,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘If we have to go down, let us go down fighting.’ For- eign investment from the likes of Wal-Mart and Britain’s Tesco would be allowed, albeit under strict conditions. The nation’s diesel prices, long heavily subsidised, were now also raised, and foreign investors were invited into India’s airline industry. A few weeks later, with the wind in its sails—with business leaders and to some extent the media swinging behind it—the government announced a revival of long-shelved plans to invite foreign investment into the insurance and pension sectors.

Suddenly, wherever I went, whomever I spoke to, I was being congratulated for having helped goad Singh into action, for helping unleash a new round of reforms that would save India’s economy. Indian-American businessmen in California, academics in New York and Washington and senior editors thanked me for my supposed role. Everyone, that is, except the small store owners and their activist leaders, who worried that Wal-Mart would put them out of business. For them, the Washington Post was now part of an evil conspiracy with the American empire...

Yet in Parliament, the opposition lawmakers continued to taunt Manmohan Singh, suggesting that he thank the Washington Post for the alarm call. But in truth, my article probably had little effect on finally waking the Prime Minister. The writing had been on the wall ever since Standard & Poor’s had warned a few months earlier that Indian debt was facing a possible downgrade to ‘junk’ status. The government was running out of money, and had had no choice but to act.

Yet Singh’s valiant attempt to save his legacy was to prove ineffective. Walmart has yet to open a single supermarket in India, deterred by the strict conditions attached to the foreign investment in multi-brand retail (although it continues to operate twenty wholesale cash-and-carry stores under the Best Price Modern Wholesale brand). Global investor confidence continues to ebb. By the summer of 2013, Indian economic growth was slowing dramatically, the rupee was in free fall, and no one seemed to have a good word to say about the Prime Minister.

Manmohan Singh will go down in history as India’s first Sikh prime minister and the country’s third-longest-serving premier, as the man who designed India’s economic reforms, and yet, in historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, also as something of a ‘tragic figure’. For me, that tragedy lies in his inability to live up to the hope that was vested in him, and his inability to overcome the dysfunctional nature of the democracy over which he presided. His attempts to portray himself as divorced from the conspiracy of corruption at the heart of his government, and above the dirty politics of coalition formation that had placed him in a position of power, ultimately failed to convince many Indians. If his cabinet was corrupt, and that corruption was dragging the economy down, the Prime Minister must take a large share of the blame.

Throughout India, dedicated men and women with far less power at their command are struggling to invigorate Indian democracy, to clean up its politics and make its bureaucracy more accountable. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had more power than any of them, yet seemed reluctant to act, unwilling to stick his own neck out to take on the vested interests at the heart of his government. At times, as we shall see in the story of the Right to Information Act in chapter 5, he behaved more like an obstacle to progress.

Singh was on the right side of history when he launched the economic reforms of 1991. Two decades later, those economic reforms have led to rising aspirations among the Indian people, and rising demands on what the state needs to provide – demands that have so far been met by paralysis and peevishness. Singh now seems like a man on the wrong side of history, in the words of an old Elvis Costello song, ‘A Man Out of Time’.