In the 16th-17th Century, the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei shook the world of planetary science – and Christian orthodoxy – by propounding the heliocentric theory of the universe. This theory held that, contrary to Biblical texts that depicted the universe as revolving around a stationary earth, it was in fact the earth, and other planets, that revolved around the sun.
For his exertions in advancing astronomy that Christendom considered “heretical”, Galileo was pilloried in his lifetime, subjected to the Roman Inquisition – and forced to recant his views. Even in humiliation, however, Galileo remained unyielding. Contemporaneous historical accounts recall that the moment he was set at liberty, Galileo looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and said, in a low voice: “Eppur si move.” Still, (the earth) moves. The orthodoxy may have forced him to publicly renounce his theory, but his own faith in his theory was unshaken.
Galileo’s unbending integrity, articulated in the sotto voce (hushed tone), is frequently held up as a masterly invocation of the theatrical device where “less” is “more”. The things that you say in an undertone carry greater emphasis than what you are perceived to say loud and clear.
In his address to the nation on Friday night, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid out a case for why his government had been compelled to take the unpopular decisions of recent days – of raising diesel prices, and cutting back on subsidies on LPG cylinders. In many ways, the speech was intellectually dishonest: Singh effectively said that the economy needed to be retrieved from a fiscal ditch, but failed to acknowledge his own government’s culpability in having driven the economy into that ditch. Yet, to the extent that he was at least giving rare voice to the need for policy course correction, and explaining the context of the recent controversial decisions, it was a welcome initiative. For a country that is used to seeing leaders hide behind walls, particularly in times of political churn when unpopular decisions are forced on a hapless people, that marked a rare departure from Singh’s own track record of heightened taciturnity.
Yet, it was what an unblinking Manmohan Singh said sotto voce, and what he left tantalisingly unsaid, that may be more politically significant. In the spaces between his prepared speech, what he was effectively saying was that what the country needs is more of the reforms that former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao unleashed in 1991 (with Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister), but the reckless welfarist spending under Sonia Gandhi‘s directive was ruining all that.
The repeated invocation of the 1991 parallel was one of the most striking aspects of Singh’s speech. A few commentators have interpreted it as a marker of Singh wallowing in nostalgia for a time when the middle class held him in thrall and crowned him the original reformer. But given the history of Sonia Gandhi‘s visceral antipathy to everything associated with Narasimha Rao’s stewardship of the country of the post-1991 years, Singh was effectively waving a red rag in front of Sonia Gandhi.
In a curious sort of way, Sonia Gandhi’s orthodoxy sees any attempt to project Narasimha Rao as the original architect of India’s reforms in 1991 as being just as heretical as Christendom saw Galileo’s heliocentric theory. In a speech in December 2009, on the 125th anniversary of the party’s founding, she pointedly ignored Narasimha Rao’s contribution, refusing even to take his name. More strikingly, she suggested that credit for the 1991 reforms should in fact go to Rajiv Gandhi.
In fact, so intensely personal did things get that when Narasimha Rao died in 2004, his family, which was expecting a funeral with state honours and a samadhi for him in New Delhi, given that he had lived the last 30 years of his life there, was told to take his body to Hyderabad instead. Even more tellingly, Narasimha Rao’s body was not even allowed to be taken inside the All India Congress Committee office at 24, Akbar Road for homage; the gun carriage was sent away at the office gates, where it was kept for 20 minutes. (Read the full account of Narasimha Rao’s final humiliation here.)
The hit-job on Narasimha Rao by Dynasty worshippers like Arjun Singh continued even posthumously – as evidenced by the latter’s autobiography, published after his own death.
It is in this context that Manmohan Singh’s invocation of the post-1991 economic reforms – not once, but four times – in his speech 0n Friday assumes significance. Even his remark that “money doesn’t grow on trees” must be seen to be directed as much at Sonia Gandhi as at his primary television audience. The Sonia Gandhi-inspired Food Security Bill has faced some pushback within the Cabinet on the grounds that it is enormously expensive, unfunded, and ill-conceived. But it is almost certain to be pushed through next year, ahead of the elections of 2014.
In many ways, the Manohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi diarchy is, as Firstpost has noted earlier, a curious pushmi-pullyou beast: even ratings agencies had pointed to its malefic effect as the underlying reason for India’s economic mess. Singh’s sotto voce commentary is evidently aimed at securing his own legacy (such as it is) from the taint of the past few years.
Of course, Manmohan Singh survives only at Sonia Gandhi’s pleasure, and if he oversteps the limits of propriety with more targeted criticism of her or her policies, he will be dumped in a trice – and his reputation tarnished with retrospective effect, as happened with Narasimha Rao. Yet, Singh evidently cares enough about his own perception of India’s post-1991 economic history to quietly place his thoughts on record for posterity. Friday night was his own “Eppur si move” moment.