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Home / Opinion / Online-views /  The shallow middle-class contempt for Singh

Historian Ramachandra Guha has sent down his pronouncement on Manmohan Singh. Writing in The Telegraph, he dismisses Khushwant Singh’s view that Singh is the best prime minister we’ve ever had. Khushwant Singh, Guha observes, is not the best judge of leaders. He thought Sanjay Gandhi would save India.

For Guha, Manmohan Singh has been a disappointment and even, this is in the headline and may not be Guha’s view, a failure. Singh has never been a popular leader because he lacks charisma. The middle class’s SMSes laugh at him because he’s seen as weak. However, most academics think highly of Singh. Guha also did once, as he suggests. He then tells us the reasons why he no longer does, and we should look at them.

Four things about Singh disappoint Guha.

The first is that he is timid towards Sonia Gandhi. He yields to her on the appointment of ministers and legislating of laws.

Tough act: Newsweek magazine called him ‘the leader other leaders love’. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

This is linked to Guha’s second point, Singh’s “timidity in not contesting a Lok Sabha seat", choosing to remain a Rajya Sabha member.

The problem is that Singh has tried once and failed. South Delhi defeated him in 1999. The Indian votes confessionally or he succumbs to charisma. The intellectual has no popular appeal in India.

B.R. Ambedkar was defeated by Bombay in 1952, two years after he drafted the Constitution. He never won a Lok Sabha seat either.

Guha believes Singh would have more authority if he won his seat. I don’t believe so. His power would still come from Sonia, who has imposed him over Indians on sufferance.

Guha’s third point is Singh’s lack of judgement in picking advisers. His two principal secretaries, Guha says, are not respected by the bureaucracy. One of them is a “notorious intriguer" and the other a “Gandhi family loyalist". I know nothing about this and have no light to offer. However, Guha does not illustrate how these men have affected Singh’s work. Guha is right in pointing out that Singh’s media advisers were both academics and not reporters. Someone else, Guha feels, would have suggested Singh meet with common folk.

I don’t think Singh needs a reporter to tell him that he should be seen on television meeting villagers, as Guha thinks he should. The fact is that he chooses not to. The question is why. I can speculate on this and suggest that the reason is that Singh does not think it valuable to listen to the aam aadmi. If this is the case, I do not know if it is, I think Singh is right. On the other hand, should he do this to get good press? He could, but it’s doubtful this works either. Rahul Gandhi means well but is laughed at for the most part in his attempt to reach out to rural India. In any case it isn’t the villager who has a problem with Singh, it’s the middle class.

Guha’s fourth disappointment is that Singh is keen to “win good chits from Western leaders". This is a personal disappointment for Guha. It need not delay us other than to make the observation that even if true (I don’t see what benefit could accrue to Singh in such chamchagiri), there’s nothing wrong with it. It is obvious that foreign leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel are soft on Singh. He won Newsweek’s vote among world leaders as their most admired fellow leader. Newsweek called him “the leader other leaders love". It is obvious also that the foreign press fawns over him. Whether this is so because Singh solicits it is debatable.

Other than these four reasons, Guha refers to the corruption in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. He believes Singh should have done more to act against it. But what?

Guha says Singh should have sacked Suresh Kalmadi immediately on news of the scale of the Commonwealth Games scandal breaking. Actually, he could not have done this. Kalmadi was not in the government. He headed the Indian Olympic Association, which sacked him the day after he went to jail.

Some of Singh’s ministers are demonstrably corrupt. But it’s also true that they have been acted against. Guha names Kalmadi and A. Raja, but they are both in Tihar, and being prosecuted. What else should Singh have done?

Guha says Singh should have broken ties with the DMK when the Raja scandal became obvious. He should have done this “even if that meant the fall of the United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi".

Elections are not fought on issues in India. Such high principle would not be recognized, would have brought no reward and been without meaning. It is also easy for someone with no Lok Sabha stake to run away from the problem.

It is staying on in such thorny circumstance that is hard. There are many humiliations, and often defeats. But Singh persists.

This is the source of his greatness, his heroism. A weaker man would succumb to Guha’s prescription of martyrdom.

And what would this achieve? It is not difficult to imagine this. Would the two mercenary Tamilian parties vanish after an election? Would the Yadavs go away? Or Mamata Banerjee? Why throw the dice expecting to roll a 13? It won’t happen.

The other thing to consider is: Can Singh convince Congressmen to give up power merely because his life is made difficult by allies? This is difficult to swallow. The best that could have happened is his personal resignation. Another would have taken his place, and our problems would remain.

Guha says Singh “clings to office". To what end does he cling to office?

Guha offers two stories of Singh’s probity and incorruptibility. One, that Singh’s daughter hid her father’s address (when he was finance minister) when she approached someone for a recommendation. The second that he politely refused a friend’s request that Singh’s office car be used to drop him after lunch. So it isn’t about that. Is it for fame, then? But Guha himself says that Singh is most reluctant to meet Indian journalists. I have written about this before, explaining why he doesn’t. He’s probably our most reticent leader ever (Nehru often delivered himself of three speeches in a day).

Guha says he remains in office “at whatever cost to one’s reputation, one’s party, and one’s nation". This is harsh. Is Singh harming India and his party by braving the problems that face the country, most of them internal and the making of Indians?

In listing his disappointments, Guha gives us the audience’s view of the stage. We already have this from the television anchor, and the middle class. It is moral and lacks nuance. He doesn’t give us an understanding of Singh’s environment and his options, except asking him to fall on his sword, or the kirpan he doesn’t carry.

We haven’t discussed his achievements, and this may not be the place for it, but there are a few. Singh’s sobriety in the face of Pakistan’s recklessness, his delivery of high economic growth which we now take for granted, his government’s writing of some of the most effective and humane laws ever written in India—the right to information and education, the national rural employment guarantee scheme to name three. And his doing all this with little support.

Nehru had majorities of 364 in 1952 and 371 in 1957 in the Lok Sabha. Lal Bahadur Shastri inherited Congress’ third sweep of 361. Indira had 283, then 352, and 374. Rajiv had a majority of over 400.

Manmohan was given minorities of 141 and 206. It’s fairer to compare his position to Narasimha Rao’s, but even Rao got 244 seats. Guha does not touch upon this.

Perhaps it is obvious that Singh is a disappointment if not a failure and I’m missing something. But given the poor hand that Indian voters have dealt him, he has played well, even brilliantly.

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

Send your feedback to replytoall@livemint.com

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Also Read |Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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