Indian Decade

Manmohan Singh as King Lear

Manmohan Singh is under fire over govt corruption. There’s something of Shakespeare’s King Lear in his plight.

'I am a man more sinned against than sinning,’ cries Shakespeare’s tragic hero King Lear, as he invokes God in a fit of rage brought on by intolerable personal suffering.

Lear's point is that his current suffering simply isn’t in proportion to the sins he knows he’s committed in the past. He understands he’s got to suffer for his unjust treatment of his youngest daughter Cordelia (whom he disowned because she wouldn’t indulge in the superfluous flattery her two sisters did). But Lear’s two eldest daughters end up betraying him, and throwing him out on the streets. Hapless and helpless, Lear questions out loud whether this extreme suffering is justified.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sounded a bit like Lear when he addressed the editors of the TV news media on February 16. Faced with storms of protest and public fury over the alleged corruption in his administration, Singh argued that he’s not as big a culprit in all this controversy as he’s made out to be. That kind of thinking sums up the anger and helplessness felt by a prime minister who made the mistake of trusting a crooked colleague, throwing away his conscience and common sense in the process.

It’s unfortunate, for had our prime minister shown the same zeal and firmness in dealing with former Telecoms Minister A. Raja that he did in pursuing the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2009, he’d have retained the high moral ground that's been his trademark until now.

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Raja’s believed misdeeds and defiance in allocating 2G spectrum have been public knowledge since 2008, when he became minister. Yet, despite his administrative misdemeanours, he was given the same portfolio in the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. There’s no doubt Raja was the preferred candidate of alliance partner the Dravida Munetra Kazagham (DMK). Still, it was ultimately the prime minister’s decision to select ministers. To say as Singh did at the press conference that in a coalition government some compromises have to be made is effectively an admission of guilt by a head of government.

Singh, under siege from all quarters, took the unusual step of calling a live press conference to clear the air and reassert his moral authority, while assuring the nation that he’s still in command. The idea was to underscore the government’s resolve to deal firmly with corruption.

But the prime minister’s direct engagement with the nation came a bit late. When then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak decided to address the nation and assured his people that he’d leave office in three months, nobody was willing to trust him, nobody was willing to listen, and he ultimately had to bow to the wishes of the people.

The people’s anger in India isn’t that extreme. And, given Singh’s track record, they're still willing to trust him—but maybe not for long. If he fails to stem corruption and address the ethical deficit in the nation’s governance, his chances of long-term survival will be severely compromised.

One thing that helps Singh out is that the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party isn’t doing a particularly good job of sounding convincing or comforting amid the scandals, and so there’s some room for the Congress to regain lost ground.  

Shakespeare’s King Lear trusted his two eldest daughters after they assured him they’d take care of him long after his retirement. He shunned his youngest daughter for being honest.

Singh, similarly, has relied too much on the wisdom and assurances of a wily and unscrupulous ally, the DMK, and ignored the voice of the people and his own conscience—and he’s now paying the price. Is it too late to mend fences with the Aam Aadmi, or common man, whose voice he ignored to satiate the hunger of a decadent alliance partner?

Guest Author

Sanjay Kumar

Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi-based journalist and correspondent for The Diplomat.

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