Daddy dearest

Ever since Manmohan Singh took the ultimate step and joined politics, accepting the offer to become Union finance minister in 1991, he has been an object of curiosity. Understandably. Without any pedigree in politics, he has done more than well for himself—making a mark as finance minister, and later, being nominated to two consecutive terms as prime minister; this after serving in every conceivable economic assignment in government (whether as chief economic adviser, as secretary, economic affairs, or as governor of the Reserve Bank of India).

Incredibly, despite these tremendous achievements, very little was known of the man—partly because of his reticent nature. The larger narrative of Manmohan Singh is made up of generalities: technocrat, honest bureaucrat, incorruptible, and so on. And of course, along the way, his self-appointed groupies—several of them veteran economic journalists—have perpetuated myths of the man; the most popular being of his infallibility as an economic manager, something that came back to haunt him in his final years as prime minister when his government struggled to keep the lid on inflation, even as growth rates halved and job creation simply dried up.

Given this background, it is indeed heartening that a raft of books which throw light on Singh hit the stores this year, albeit strategically. But do we stand more informed?

The first, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking Of Manmohan Singh, was penned by his former media adviser, Sanjaya Baru. Purported to be Singh’s defence against his acerbic critics, the book was released just before the 16th general election. If indeed that was the objective, it failed miserably. The book turned out to be a Baru starrer in which Singh ended up as a footnote. The references to the former prime minister, like the title of the book, hardly helped his case. Instead, they painted Singh as a person who was willing to make compromises, including suffering personal humiliation, to hang on as the prime minister.

The second book, K. Natwar Singh’s memoirs, One Life Is Not Enough, was never a book about the former prime minister. It was all about Natwar Singh’s life journey that brought him enviably close to the nucleus of the Congress power centre: Sonia Gandhi. But, here again, the former prime minister ended up as collateral damage as Natwar Singh assiduously set about exacting revenge for being so unceremoniously ejected from the sanctum sanctorum of the Congress party power set-up. The less than generous disclosures on Manmohan Singh leave the reader with the impression that the former prime minister was a bit actor filling in for the missing hero.

Strictly Personal—Manmohan And Gursharan: HarperCollins, 456 pages, 699
Strictly Personal—Manmohan And Gursharan: HarperCollins, 456 pages, 699

Personally, I loved the honesty of the author and her direct writing style. The book is chatty, eschewing literary flourishes—which, frankly, I abhor. One can quarrel with the author on the selective interpretation of the career profile of Manmohan Singh or the errors of omission. But what one can’t take away from it is that it is a great read; once you pick it up, you can’t put it down.

It also busts some myths about Manmohan Singh which, to be fair to him, have been perpetuated by people around him. One of them is how he has risen from incredible poverty—an unnecessary subtext to what is otherwise a tremendous professional career (that entire generation, which includes our parents, consisted of super achievers, surviving odds under an oppressive colonial regime that few of us can imagine today, having been brought up in independent India). We learn that Manmohan Singh’s father was a trader of dry fruits based in Peshawar. Yes, he had a tough childhood, more due to the personal circumstances of losing his mother early and being brought up by relatives. But he used education and his talent for being studious to break out of the mould.

Another nugget the book shares with the reader is that India’s tryst with economic reforms did not begin in 1991—a myth perpetuated by Singh’s loyalists. The seminal moment was the drafting of the sixth Five-Year Plan in 1980 after Indira Gandhi was returned to power. It formally acknowledged the change in mindset from the “commanding heights of the economy" ideology defined previously.

The economic crisis of 1990 was indeed the trigger to accelerate reforms, which had already been initiated in the 1980s. Without the altered mindset, it is unlikely that the desired changes seeking to release the economy from its shackles would have actually gone through. The book implies as much.

Since the book is a personal account with unprecedented access, we can safely assume all facts about Manmohan Singh to be true. So it is nice to learn that the former prime minister conceals a sense of humour beneath the stodgy exterior—but this, as the book reveals, diminished proportionately to his ascent within government. The narrative is peppered with many such anecdotes.

Yes, you will come away with the feeling that it is indeed a book by a daughter about her father. I wouldn’t blame you if you did, like me, feel that the book’s title should have been “Manmohan Singh: My Daddy".

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