India’s ‘silent’ prime minister becomes a tragic figure

Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to credit the Caravan, an Indian magazine, for two statements that it originally published in 2011. The assertion by Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser, that Singh had become an object of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life first appeared in the Caravan, as did an assertion by Ramachandra Guha, a political historian, that Singh was handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.” While both men told The Post that the assertions could accurately be attributed to them, the article should have credited the Caravan when it used or paraphrased the remarks. The article has been updated.


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term in office has been damaged by corruption scandals and policy paralysis. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images)
September 4, 2012

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh helped set his country on the path to modernity, prosperity and power, but critics say the shy, soft-spoken
79-year-old is in danger of going down in history as a failure.

The architect of India’s economic reforms, Singh was a major force behind his country’s rapprochement with the United States and is a respected figure on the world stage. President Obama’s aides used to boast of his tremendous rapport and friendship with Singh.

But the image of the scrupulously honorable, humble and intellectual technocrat has slowly given way to a completely different one: a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government.

Every day for the past two weeks, India’s Parliament has been adjourned as the opposition bays for Singh’s resignation over allegations of waste and corruption in the allocation of coal-
mining concessions.

The story of Singh’s dramatic fall from grace in his second term in office and the slow but steady tarnishing of his reputation has played out in parallel with his country’s decline on his watch. As India’s economy has slowed and as its reputation for rampant corruption has reasserted itself, the idea that the country was on an inexorable road to becoming a global power has increasingly come into question.

“More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history,” said political historian Ramachandra Guha. The historian told the Caravan, an Indian magazine, last year that Singh had been fatally handicapped by “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.’’

The irony is that Singh’s greatest selling points — his incorruptibility and economic experience — are the mirror image of his government’s greatest failings.

Under Singh, economic reforms have stalled, growth has slowed sharply and the rupee has collapsed. But just as damaging to his reputation is the accusation that he looked the other way and remained silent as his cabinet colleagues filled their own pockets.

In the process, he transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life, Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s media adviser during his first term, said in a 2011 interview with the Caravan. In a telephone conversation, Baru said his sentiments had not changed.

Attendees at meetings and conferences were jokingly urged to put their phones into “Manmohan Singh mode,” while one joke cited a dentist urging the seated prime minister, “At least in my clinic, please open your mouth.”

Singh finally did open his mouth last week, to rebut criticism from the government auditor that the national treasury had been cheated of billions of dollars after coal-mining concessions were granted to private companies for a pittance — including during a five-year period when Singh doubled as coal minister.

Singh denied that there was “any impropriety,” but he was drowned out by catcalls when he attempted to address Parliament on the issue. His brief statement to the media afterward appeared to do little to change the impression of a man whose aloofness from the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics has been transformed from an asset into a liability.

“It has been my general practice not to respond to motivated criticism directed personally at me,” he said. “My general attitude has been, ‘My silence is better than a thousand answers; it keeps intact the honor of innumerable questions.’ ”

Singh probably will survive calls for his resignation, but the scandal represents a new low in a reputation that has been sinking for more than a year.

‘I have to do my duty’

Singh was born in 1932 into a small-time trader’s family in a village in what is now Pakistan, walking miles to school every day and studying by the light of a kerosene lamp. The family moved to India shortly before partition of the subcontinent in 1947, and Singh pleaded with his father to be allowed to continue with his studies rather than join the dry-fruit trade.

A series of scholarships allowed Singh to continue those studies first at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where he completed a PhD. Marriage was arranged with Gursharan Kaur in 1958; they have three daughters.

A successful career in the bureaucracy followed, but it was in 1991 that Singh was thrust into the spotlight as finance minister amid a financial crisis.

With little choice, Singh introduced a series of policies that freed the Indian economy from suffocating state control and unleashed the dynamism of its private sector.

More than a decade later, in 2004, Singh again found himself on center stage, becoming in his own words an “accidental prime minister.”

The Congress party led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi had surprised many people by winning national elections that year, but she sprang an even bigger surprise by renouncing the top job and handing it to Singh.

In him she saw not only the perfect figure­head for her government but also a man of unquestioning loyalty, party insiders say, someone she could both trust and control.

“I’m a small person put in this big chair,” Singh told broadcaster Charlie Rose in 2006. “I have to do my duty, whatever task is allotted of me.”

From the start, it was clear that Sonia Gandhi held the real reins of power. The Gandhi family has ruled India for most of its post-
independence history and enjoys an almost cultlike status within the Congress party. Sonia’s word was destined to remain law.

But Singh made his mark during his first term in office, standing up to opposition from his coalition partners and from within his own party to push through a civil nuclear cooperation deal with the United States in 2008, a landmark agreement that ended India’s nuclear isolation after its weapons tests in 1974 and 1998.

It was a moment that almost brought his government down, an issue over which he offered to resign. While no electricity has yet flowed from that pact, it marked a major step forward in India’s relations with the United States.

The Congress-led coalition went on to win a second term in 2009, in what many people saw as a mandate for Singh.

The 2009 election “was a victory for him, but he did not step up to claim it — maybe because he is too academic, maybe because he is too old,” said Tushar Poddar, managing director at Goldman Sachs in Mumbai. “That lack of leadership, that lack of boldness, lack of will — that really shocked us. That really shocked foreign investors.”

‘He suffers from doubts’

In a series of largely off-the-
record conversations, friends and colleagues painted a picture of a man who felt undermined by his own party and who sank into depression and self-pity.

His one attempt in 1999 to run for a parliamentary seat from a supposedly safe district in the capital, New Delhi, had ended in ignominious defeat. His failure to contest a parliamentary seat in 2009, making him the only Indian prime minister not to have done so, further undermined both his confidence, his friends and colleagues say, and his standing in the eyes of the party.

Congress, insiders say, never accepted that the 2009 election was a mandate for Singh and jealously resented the idea that he could be seen to be anywhere near as important as a Gandhi. Rahul, Sonia’s son, was being groomed to take over from Singh, and the prime minister needed to be cut down to size.

He soon was openly criticized by his own party over attempts to continue a peace process with Pakistan despite the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani militants.

Singh became even more quiet at his own cabinet meetings, to the point of not speaking up for the sort of economic changes many thought he ought to be championing.

“His gut instincts are very good, but sometimes he suffers from doubts about the political feasibility, about getting things done,” said Jagdish N. Bhagwati, a Columbia University professor who has been friends with Singh since their Cambridge days.

Singh will go down in history as India’s first Sikh prime minister and the country’s third-longest-serving premier, but also as someone who did not know when to retire, Guha said.

“He is obviously tired, listless, without energy,” he said. “At his time of life, it is not as though he is going to get a new burst of energy. Things are horribly out of control and can only get worse for him, for his party and for his government.”

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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