Gurcharan Das is a magical writer: he writes huge books, and still sells them in lacs. I have known him for some decades, and admired his facility with words. I have known Manmohan Singh longer - since our twenties - and have my own reservations about him. Since this column was written, Manmohan Singh rose even higher, and has been judged even more harshly. He was hurt, and gave an unusual statement in self-defence when he stepped down as Prime Minister. I have myself often criticized him at times. But I continue to think that his is a complex personality, and that he deserves a more rounded judgment. This was written in Business Standard of 28 November 2000.
IS MANMOHAN SINGH A REFORMER?
Gurcharan Das has written a paean to liberalization (India Unbound, Viking) – arguably the most readable book on the reforms of the 1990s. Gurcharan is a magical writer and a great story-teller; his account of the reforms is so upbeat that even I thought we had accomplished something.
“We”, I would have thought, included Manmohan Singh. But of him Gurcharan writes, “I have sadly concluded that he is not a reformer, although he is a man of great integrity.” This is an astonishing thing to write about the man who pushed through most of the things that Gurcharan praises, against great odds, in the face of tremendous tension and unpleasantness. I have seen him then, beleaguered, fighting every inch of the way. He was an inspired man; especially when he spoke extempore, he swept his audience. I accompanied him to a public debate with the leaders of West Bengal. As we approached the Indian Institute of Management, demonstrators with black flags hurled abuse. They rushed towards our car with the sticks that had held aloft their slogans; it was by a stroke of luck that we escaped unhurt. After that close brush, Manmohan Singh spoke; at the end of his speech, Jyoti Basu said to him, “You are so persuasive that you may convert even us.” And he did; Jyoti Basu did change policies, and make West Bengal one of the most capitalist-friendly states.
It was not an isolated occasion; I have so often seen Manmohan Singh soldier on in Parliament against a rude and unruly opposition while all his party men sat sullenly behind him. None came to his aid. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the bank scam, which targetted and finally paralyzed Manmohan Singh, was headed by Ram Niwas Mirdha of his own party. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Fertilizers, which sabotaged the increase in the price of urea, was headed, if I remember right, by Balasaheb Vikhe Patil of his own party. Against such concerted opposition Manmohan Singh achieved something. If that is not a reformer, then neither are Gurcharan and I.
I have had occasions to criticize Manmohan Singh. But I would not presume to sit in judgment over him. Those of us who produce words have all too facile a tendency to mistake them for action. Of course they take some effort to write, they are read by many; some of those readers perhaps even change their minds sometimes as a result. But that impact is tiny compared to what is needed to change India the way we want. It will be changed either when the rulers get convinced, or when the people are convinced enough to push the rulers. Anyone who thinks he is convincing either is living in a fool’s paradise.
Manmohan Singh too had our opportunities. He has a first in Economics Tripos from Cambridge, and a Ph D from Oxford. Any international organization would have prized him. He could have lived in luxury, sent his children to American universities, and retired with a fortune. Later in life, he rose to the peaks of the civil service in India; from there he could have got a senior post in the Fund or the Bank. Chief Economic Advisors and Finance Secretaries before and after him have done it. Still later, he could have become a columnist in the best newspapers, got fellowships abroad, done consultancy, taken directorships. At every stage he made choices, and rejected options an economic man would take. I think that in all these decisions, patriotism played an overwhelming part. He is the only genuine, consistent patriot I know in Indian politics. It is because of his patriotism that he is in politics today. There can be no other reason for him of all people persisting in such a dispiriting, thankless occupation.
Politics is a team sport. You have to join a party to play. Once you are in a party, you have to live with your partymen. Manmohan Singh was in the same cabinet as Sukh Ram who was discovered to have amassed crores of unaccounted wealth, Satish Sharma who gave out petroleum licences to friends, relatives and partymen, and - let it be said - Narasimha Rao who orchestrated the bribing of JMM members of Parliament. He cannot have been unaware of what was going on. Yet he stuck to the Congress; he is still there. The Congress in opposition takes up populist causes; it opposes reforms simply because the ruling BJP proposes them. And Manmohan Singh goes along. That is why his reformist admirers are perplexed, disappointed, angry. Amongst them is Gurcharan Das.
Does that mean Manmohan Singh has ceased to be a reformer? If being a reformer means wearing liberalism on one’s sleeves and proclaiming it at every opportunity, then he never was one. But then although Manmohan Singh never lies, he can be very economical with the truth: what he says publicly is a very small subset of what he actually believes, and he is a master of shaping words to fit the occasion. It is a function of the public roles he has played; neither a senior bureaucrat nor a politician can afford to express himself frankly. Many a stupid one does put his foot in his mouth; but he is not stupid. The taciturnity may also be an irremediable character trait; one could never tell unless Manmohan Singh finally took leave of public life. Till then, it would be a mistake to judge him by what he says in public.
Is there, then, any other way of judging him? There is only one test: what he does. By that test he has already proved himself to be a reformer. Another opportunity to judge him would come if he got into power again. But until then, I prefer to believe that he is as appalled as any of us by the racket that the Indian government has become, and as desirous of removing the shackles it imposes. He would probably be more cautious than we would like him to be, he would respect the existing institutions more than they deserve, he would worry about the poor and the unfortunate. But these are permitted variations within the definition of a reformer.
Instead of awarding brownie points to people for their words, we should ask ourselves what levers - other than periodic crises and World Bank conditionalities - can be used to free the country of babu-neta raj. We should reflect on why liberals like Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and Sharad Joshi have had so little impact. We should ask ourselves what reforms would benefit a rickshaw puller, or a building worker. I have no answers; I continue to look for them.