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-
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.