In the Indian belief system, a person's 80th birthday — such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh celebrates in a low-key manner today — marks something of a milestone moment. First and foremost, given the health profile of most Indians (and the average life expectancy, particularly among a pre-Partition generation), it is a tribute to one's longevity, and for that reason gives one's family and well-wishers cause for celebration. Additionally, in a culture that credits age with infallible wisdom, someone who has witnessed 1,000 full moons in his lifetime — allowing for some pardonable rounding-off — is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a fount of knowledge.
In that spirit, here's wishing Manmohan Singh a happy 80th.
In many ways, Manmohan Singh's life journey, from being born in a village in Pakistan's Punjab province through acquiring some distinction in the abstractions of academia to becoming, first, a faceless bureaucrat, and then an accidental politician and, finally, one of India's most unlikely Prime Ministers, is a story of the infinite possibilities that India affords. Manmohan Singh has also been associated, in the way that some people have greatness thrust upon them, with at least two of the milestone events in India's recent political and economic history that could well define the country's civilizational course over the next few decades.
The first relates to the economic reforms of 1991, which happened under Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao's political patronage but have come to be defined as 'Manmohanomics'; the second relates to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal of 2008, which, for all its failure thus far to yield even a single MegaWatt of nuclear energy for India, is more about priming India for an emerging world order, the results of which will become manifest only years from now.
Yet, it's also fair to say that if Manmohan Singh's milestone birthday had come about even three weeks earlier, an assessment of his life's work until then would have been vastly different from one that's made today. Until three weeks ago, Manmohan Singh looked like a man who would only be remembered for the monumental corruption scandals that happened under his watch, which he knew of but looked the other way, and for overseeing the colossal wreckage of the Indian economy through masterly inactivity of the past three-plus years.
Both of these are terrible failings, born of the man's weak grounding in politics that made him subordinate his Prime Ministerial authority to the Congress party's dynastic puppet masters - and to the party's coalition allies and the inflated threats to his government's survival therefrom.
History will forever judge Manmohan Singh harshly for his failure to assert his authority to hold his party and his coalition allies to the same standards of probity in public life that he held himself up to at a personal level. And to the extent that for much of the past three years, he had turned his back on his own articulated belief that "the best cure for poverty is growth", he is complicit in the slow-killing of the Indian growth story.
Just one instance illustrates the manner in which he could, when it mattered to him, bend his party's will - and the arc of history - to his advantage. In 2008, after the Left parties threatened to withdraw support to the UPA government if it went ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, the Congress was ready to capitulate to the blackmail. As Caravan magazine noted, Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee were about to surrender wholesale to the Left parties, and were pleading with them to offer a face-saving exit in return for a pledge not to proceed with the deal.
It was Manmohan Singh who, desperate to retrieve his own legacy and feeling cheated by his own party's readiness to sacrifice something he had stood up for, reached out to the Samjawadi Party and secured its support. Although the parliamentary vote that ensured the government's survival was tainted by the cash-for-votes scandal, it was Manmohan Singh's suo motu political intervention that got the party, and Sonia Gandhi, to reluctantly fall in line behind him.
Similarly, in the past two weeks, Manmohan Singh has unleashed a burst of policy initiatives on the economic front, which are no more than routine measures that his government ought to have implemented over the past three years but failed to. On Tuesday, the Congress, and Sonia Gandhi, gave voice to their support for these measures — even though they are diametrically opposite to the economic philosophy that the UPA 2 government has been channelling for the past three years. It's another instance of Manmohan Singh bending the political will of his party in line with his.
It's true of course that Manmohan Singh is nothing without the party's — and Sonia Gandhi's — backing. But it's just as true that the Congress, and Sonia Gandhi, need him just as desperately as their front-office man. Manmohan Singh was not without political leverage over the Congress and Sonia Gandhi, and it is to his eternal shame that he allowed himself — and the Prime Minister's authority — to be abused for so long in the name of political expediency.
Manmohan Singh's place in history will be defined by one question: What if?
What if he had not allowed himself and his office to be abused in the manner that he did? What if he had realised his own political merits — and had called the Congress' and Sonia Gandhi's bluff earlier and more often? What if he had not looked the other way when his own Ministers and partymen were carrying out their plunder?
For sure, Manmohan Singh would have secured a more flattering legacy for himself. But, more important, he might have shaped India's political and economic destiny for the better. In the end, owing to his political weakness and his own readiness to surrender too tamely the principles that he stood for, his tenure in office as Prime Minister will be characterised by India's failure to achieve its potential — and his own culpability in it.
Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: what might have been...