Manmohan Singh’s Moment of Reckoning

Manmohan Singh’s fall from grace is the latest chapter in the Indian National Congress’ self-inflicted implosion.

Manmohan Singh’s Moment of Reckoning
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Indian National Congress, India’s Grand Old Party, is lurching from crisis to crisis. In an absence of a coherent political narrative about its future after the May 2014 electoral debacle, it is increasingly signaling that it has entered a phase of terminal decline. Saner voices within the party are either keeping quiet or are planning their future outside the party. The sycophants are busy drumming up issues to showcase the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty in a light that doesn’t really interest the rest of the country. At a time when a hyperactive Narendra Modi is shaping the country’s discourse in a manner not seen in the last several decades, the Congress Party leadership is missing in action with the general in charge, Rahul Gandhi, taking a sabbatical to think and meditate.

For the foot soldiers of the party, operating in this vacuum is a fool’s errand. So the result is ad hocism at all levels. While one section is going on yatras against the Land Acquisition Bill, the other is busy fighting for the control of the organisztion as a conflict is simmering between the old guard and the new in the party. But the most important development of the last few days was the charging of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with corruption and criminal conspiracy for his alleged role in a multibillion dollar scandal over the sale of coal fields. This was followed by an unusual display of solidarity by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, who marched to Singh’s home with other top leaders of the party. “We are fully behind him; we will fight this legally and with all the means at our command; we are sure that he will be fully vindicated,” Gandhi said. The beleaguered party might be hoping that it has been landed an opportunity to target the government for besmirching the good name of an honest Singh.

Ironies abound in these developments. The party and its leadership did nothing to support Singh’s policies as prime minister during the last few years of his government, but today the party is trying to make a show of its support. Ordinarily, this should have been a no-brainer. A party is expected to support and defend its own prime minister. But this is no ordinary party — in the Congress, only the defense of the dynasty is paramount. Everyone else is expendable. Though Singh has shown extraordinary reticence in saying anything about his tenure in government, both as finance minister under Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership (1991-1996) and his two terms as prime minister (2004-2014), the Congress leadership might have been apprehensive that Singh could spill some beans. The could explain why Sonia Gandhi took the trouble of walking all the way to Singh’s residence, a show of support that was never visible when Singh was the prime minister.

Otherwise, if Sonia Gandhi and the Congress could throw their former prime minister, Narasimha Rao, to the wolves, then the same fate could have befallen Singh as well. Rao’s humiliation was so complete that even in his death he remained persona non grata; his body was not allowed to be taken inside the Congress Party headquarters in Delhi. The Congress Party did all it could to deprive Rao of all the credit that is his due as the nation’s prime minister at one of the most difficult times in its contemporary history.

The early 1990s was a time when a succession of weak governments had left India rudderless — economically, politically and strategically. The world was changing rapidly and the Indian economy was collapsing. India was facing a million mutinies and there was no one of national stature to stem the tide. The Mandal-Mandir discourse — controversies surrounding caste reservations and Ayodhya — was threatening to unravel the country. It was at such a juncture that Rao assumed power. He had scant support from the senior party leadership of his own party, all of whom had their own aspirations to become prime minister.

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On all crucial issues, be it the economy or foreign policy, Rao made decisions that have continued to shape India’s rise over the last two decades. Manmohan Singh may be touted as the father of Indian economic reforms, but it was Rao who shepherded the process. Singh was an economic technocrat with little understanding of political constraints. It was Rao who shielded Singh from the left wing of his own party, a flank that had left no stone unturned in opposing the economic liberalization program. Rao made economic reforms politically tenable at a time when his own party was out to scuttle his most ambitious undertaking. Being one of the most successful non-Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers is not something that supporters of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty can accept easily. In their deference to the dynasty, they have vilified Rao, a sagacious and wily leader who led this nation like few others.

Singh himself was quick to abandon Rao. As Rao’s troubles mounted, Singh in effect suggested that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion, distancing himself from his mentor and implying that Rao was indeed responsible for the corruption charges against him and would have to fend for himself. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Singh allowed the state exchequer to be looted despite his better judgment. He did not stand up for the right policy and processes and that’s a grave indictment of his leadership. Yet there is a difference: where Rao stood up against the dynasty, Singh owes his very existence to it.

Rao rejected Sonia Gandhi’s late offer of assistance from Congress Party’s legal team toward his defense. If Singh wants to regain some public trust, he should do the same and reveal to the nation the real story behind his seemingly incompetent and corrupt governance over the last several years. But that is too much to expect from someone who throughout his ten years as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy never really stood up to the dynasty.