Over the last two-and-a-half years, whenever former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visitors lamented that his service to the nation had gone unrecognised, he is said to have remarked, almost without fail: “History will be kinder to me.”
This statement reflects the pathos of a man who was derided for working ant-like – persevering silently, never losing sight of his mission and ingeniously finding a way around obstacles – to last all of 10 years as prime minister, under the United Progressive Alliance’s rule from 2004 to 2014.
But forget history. Even in the present, he is being increasingly appreciated for skippering India safely through those 10 years in which the government was a coalition of disparate parties led by the Congress. This inherently unstable arrangement of governance did not destabilise society nor disrupt the nation’s daily life.
Indeed, over the last four weeks, which will go down in history as the Month of Misery – during which people have stood in serpentine queues outside banks for a few thousand rupees and workers have been laid off because their employers did not have enough cash for wages – we have seen the return and rehabilitation of Singh.
Spotlight on Singh
It is a comeback as unstated as he has always been and a rallying back faster than what he would have ever imagined.
Reflect for a moment: long mocked for delivering speeches in a voice that seemed like a squeaky pitch, he held the nation captivate on November 24 as he expressed his disquiet in the Rajya Sabha over the government’s decision to invalidate high-value currency notes, calling it “organised loot”.
His style of delivery was still the same – soporific. But for once, substance trumped style, largely because we have learned to distinguish, in the Month of Misery, which of the two matters more.
Then, perhaps discerning the touch of ambivalence creeping into the nation’s romance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and smarting under past insults of being called Maunmohan Singh (Silent Singh) and being criticised as a prime minister who does not speak, the eminent economist put pen to paper to write an opinion piece on demonetisation for the Hindu.
It is a technique demagogues would not use to shore up their popularity – and Singh has never been one among them, which is perhaps why he has not been appreciated by a nation increasingly hooked to the thrill of tamasha, whether it comes as soap operas on TV or T20 cricket or Bollywood kitsch.
Titled the “Making of a mammoth tragedy”, the piece, published last week, no doubt had a cliché or two. For instance, Singh invoked the adage, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” to underscore what we all know: that a person’s actions are not judged solely by his or her intentions but also by their consequences. Nor was the piece remarkable for providing us insights into the economics of demonetisation – these had already been discussed threadbare earlier in the Month of Misery.
Known to avoid confrontation, Singh perhaps wrote the piece because he felt the nation could today better appreciate his style of governance. It was as if Singh was presenting to readers two personality types – Modi’s and his own – and asking them, wiser after demonetisation, to judge which of the two is better for the nation.
The two prime ministers
Singh called the demonetisation move “one impetuous decision”. In another place, he describes it “one hasty decision”. This has made the nation suffer, which is why it is “disconcerting”, he said.
Haste and impetuosity had never been personality traits associated with Singh. In fact, he was often accused of taking an inordinately long time to take decisions, prompting some to ask whether the relevant file had gone to10 Janpath for Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s approval.
But decisions require to be pondered over, their possible consequences thought through. This is because, as Singh tells readers, “most policy decisions carry risks of unintended consequences. It is important to deftly balance these risks with the potential benefits of such decisions.” Otherwise, the price to be paid could be unbearable.
Singh says as much: “Waging a war on black money may sound enticing. But it cannot entail even a single loss of life of an honest Indian.” This sentence reminds us that an estimated 80 to 100 people are said to have died since the ban on high-value notes, some while waiting for their turn to withdraw the money that is their very own, others because they were denied treatment as they did not have enough valid currency notes.
In his typically staid style, Singh goes on to disparage some myths Modi has spawned about himself – that he works harder than any other prime minister before him, that it is he alone who has earnestly sought to launch a war against corruption and that it is he who is leading the nation from darkness to light, so to speak.
“It may be tempting and self-fulfilling to believe that one has all the solutions and previous governments were merely lackadaisical in their attempts to curb black money,” Singh writes.
“It is not so.”
If previous governments appear “lackadaisical in their attempts to curb black money”, it is because, Singh seems to suggest, they had to be “mindful of the potential impact (of attempts to curb black money) on hundreds of millions of other honest citizens,” because “leaders and governments have to care for their weak and at no point can they abdicate this responsibility.”
Singh is suggesting here that a leader must weigh his responsibility to citizens against the temptation to believe he has all the solutions for the nation’s woes. In fact, it was this responsibility which made “many governments in the past decades to recover this illicit wealth through…targeted strikes at only those suspected to be holders of…unaccounted wealth, not on all citizens.”
In choosing the words, “targeted strikes”, for explaining the actions of previous governments in tackling the menace of black money, Singh has, effectively, shown up the claims of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders who are presenting demonetisation as a surgical strike. He is telling readers that flamboyance borne out of irresponsibility and nomenclatures coined in enthusiasm are not qualities of governance we should consider as virtues.
But it is not just about style of governance. It is also about the thought and analysis that went into taking the decision on demonetisation.
Style and substance, therefore, are linked – the deeper and longer you think through a decision, the less prone you would be to making egregious mistakes. This Singh doesn’t say in as many words.
But what he does say explicitly is that Modi’s decision on demonetisation was based on an utterly false premise – “That all cash is black money and all black money is in cash.” The former prime minister elaborates that the “vast majority of Indians earn in cash, transact in cash and save in cash, all legitimately… Unlike the poor, holders of black money have access to various forms of wealth such as land, gold, foreign exchange, etc.” This crucial point Modi did not understand, thus turning demonetisation into a “mammoth tragedy” that has “thrown into disarray” the lives of millions.
Demonetisation is also a mammoth tragedy because of the economic backdrop against which it was implemented. The Indian economy cannot bear the negative shock it has engendered, as Singh argues that “India’s trade numbers are at multi-year lows, industrial production is shrinking and job creation is anaemic.”
Through his piece, Singh throws the spotlight on his style of governance – thoughtful and deliberate, reflective and cerebral, averse to risks, cautious, responsible, and not driven by the desire to be remembered. These elements Singh juxtaposes against those in Modi’s style – hasty and impetuous, adventurist, risky and, therefore, potentially irresponsible, all these features an outcome of the fervent wish of the Prime Minister to be remembered as the best ever.
The return and rehabilitation of Manmohan Singh is not so much about him as the prestige and premium that will now be accorded to his style of governance. No doubt, it risks being tarred by the arrest of former Indian Air Force chief SP Tyagi on Friday in the AgustaWestland scam. Tyagi, who has been accused of accepting kickbacks to swing a deal to purchase helicopters in one firm’s favour, has entangled Prime Minister’s Office of Manmohan Singh into the row, blaming it for altering the agreement to suit AgustaWestland.
But therein lies the ultimate irony: such have been the woes of demonetisation, so sweeping, and deep, and lasting, that the charge of defalcation in the helicopter deal leveled against Singh’s PMO pales in comparison. To many, it may even smack of vengeance by a prime minister whose style of governance has brought upon the nation the Month of Misery, which shows all signs of being prolonged.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.