Before he was labelled “Underachiever” or “Poodle,” Manmohan Singh also had the mortification of being loosely referred to as “Joker”. And by none less than the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
CG Somiah, a former Union Home Secretary who retired as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, has this interesting anecdote about Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi in his autobiography The Honest Always Stand Alone.
It may also explain why Manmohan Singh may sometimes come close to quitting, but never really does so.
Rajiv Gandhi had a very urban-centric vision of development. Manmohan Singh at that point of time was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister was its ex-officio Chairman.
The seventh five-year plan for the period 1985-1990 was under development. After listening to the Commission’s presentation on the plan, Rajiv Gandhi spoke for the next half an hour.
As Somiah points out in his book, “He wanted us to plan for the construction of autobahns, airfields, speedy trains, shopping malls and entertainment centres of excellence, big housing complexes, modern hospitals and healthcare centres.”
The city-bred and the foreign-educated Rajiv had little idea of the real India. As the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Manmohan Singh called an internal meeting to discuss the matter further. “The broad consensus that emerged was that the Prime Minister was urban-centric without any knowledge of the socially and financially backward condition of the vast population living in the rural areas,” writes Somiah, who was then the Member Secretary of the Planning Commission.
At the next meeting, Manmohan Singh elaborated on the negative economic indicators prevalent in the country, stating that these could not be ignored for providing relief in any future plan. Rajiv Gandhi did not like what Singh said and made some derogatory remarks about Singh’s presentation.
Things did not stop at this. As Somiah writes, “A few days later, the Prime Minister shared his thoughts with journalists, calling us a 'bunch of jokers' who were bereft of any modern ideas of development.”
This hurt Singh terribly and it almost got him to resign from the Planning Commission. But in the end he was convinced to stay on by Somiah. “I sat with him for nearly an hour and told him not to take the extreme step and blamed the Prime Minister's ignorance for this behaviour. I further advised that since the Prime Minister was young and inexperienced, it was our duty to educate him rather than abandon him. I was finally able to convince him not to act hastily and that was my good deed for the day,” writes Somiah in his autobiography.
The point that comes out here is that Singh did not quit even after the Prime Minister of the country had publicly called him a “Joker”. What this tells us clearly is that Singh would rather continue and compromise with the prevailing state of affairs than make bold decisions.
Manmohan Singh has been criticised a lot lately for his inability to make bold reformist decisions that the country currently needs him to make as head of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. His critics have accused him of keeping the Prime Minister’s chair warm till Rahul Gandhi feels confident enough to take over the reins from him.
While there is no denying that, but the truth is a little more complicated than that. The clue to Singh’s inability to make bold decisions on his own might lie in the way Singh’s career in the government has evolved over the years.
Lalit Narayan Mishra, who was the Minister of Foreign Trade from 1970 to 1973, was the first to recognise Singh’s potential as an economist and appointed him as the Economic Adviser, ministry of foreign trade in 1971.
From this position Singh rose steadily in government. Over the years he held the posts of Chief Economic Advisor to the ministry of finance (the post currently held by Kaushik Basu), Secretary of the department of economic affairs, Member Secretary, Planning Commission, and finally the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, between 1982 and 1985.
Most of these appointments were during the rule of Indira Gandhi, except for a brief period between 1977 and 1979, when Morarji Desai and Charan Singh became Prime Ministers.
Indira Gandhi liked to surround herself with yes men, be it politicians or bureaucrats for that matter. As historian Ramchandra Guha told CNN-IBN recently, “Indira Gandhi certainly undermined Nehru’s institutional legacy…Nehru nurtured institutions of democracy — an independent election commission, an independent judiciary, bureaucracy autonomous of political interference, pluralism, secularism. Indira systematically undermined all of this.”
The only dissent she tolerated was that of her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who tragically died in a private plane crash in 1980.
Manmohan Singh rose up the hierarchy during this period when Indira Gandhi was at her peak. Even after his stint at the RBI got over in 1985, Manmohan did not fade away like other RBI governors before and after him. He was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (a post now held by his friend Montek Singh Ahluwalia).
Anyone who rose as high as Manmohan Singh did during the rule of Indira Gandhi would have been a very shrewd operator who, at some level, understood that the longevity of his career depended on going with the flow and executing things as Mrs Gandhi wanted them to be.
Singh’s big moment came in 1991, when IG Patel, who was PV Narasimha Rao’s first choice for the post of finance minister of India, rejected Rao’s offer, and proposed Singh’s name instead. Patel was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India before Manmohan Singh.
Patel had become the Director of London School of Economics after retiring from the RBI. When Singh was offered the finance minister’s post he was the Chairman of the University Grants Commission.
Singh initiated the economic reform process in India at the behest of Narasimha Rao when he presented his first budget as finance minister on 24 July 1991. His next two budgets further initiated economic reforms in the country. But the budgets of 1994 and 1995 were highly populist in nature, as the Congress party got ready for the Lok Sabha elections of 1996.
The reformist credentials of Manmohan Singh rest on the three budgets that he presented as finance minister in the early 1990s. When the Congress party wanted him to present populist budgets in 1994 and 1995 he was more than happy to oblige.
In fact, when he was the part of the finance ministry in the early 1970s, the highest marginal tax rate in India was above 90 percent. The story goes that the great JRD Tata had to sell some property every year to pay his taxes. First he paid income tax at the highest marginal rate of tax and over and above that he had to pay wealth tax as well. And so his taxes in a given year were higher than his income. Given this, he had to sell some property and pay taxes from that income.
As a part of the highest echelons of the finance ministry, Manmohan Singh would have been a part of the team that framed the proposals of the high marginal tax rates.
What these things clearly tell us is that Manmohan Singh has very rarely gone beyond his brief. He has usually done what his political masters have wanted him to do. He is what, in a rather ironic way, can be called a “team player”. And he is no “reformist” as he is made out to be. That, to a large extent, explains the secret to Singh’s longevity.
In the end let me go back to the famed character Gabbar Singh played brilliantly by Amjad Khan in the blockbuster Sholay. One of the many hit dialogues in the movie was: “Jo darr gaya, samjho marr gaya”. This line is clearly not applicable on Manmohan Singh. He can be a part of a system but doesn’t have the ability to take it on and get things done.
What is applicable though is a dialogue that the actor Om Puri said in a 2007 movie called Chupke Se: “Jo darr gaya, samjho marr gaya, jo nahi darra wo ek din pehle marra”.