He was the missing man on the campaign trail. No giant cut-outs. No Desh ka PM kaisa ho chants in his name. No mega rallies. It was as if after a decade in office Manmohan Singh did not even exist. The self-effacing prime minister had become the erasable prime minister.
His name did come up on the sidelines of the big rallies but only the BJP ones. Manmohan Singh allows Pakistanis to play football with our soldiers’ heads. Manmohan Singh looks away while the Chinese grab whatever they like from Indian territory. Nawaaz Sharif dares to compare Manmohan Singh to a village crone and he says nothing. As Navjot Singh Sidhu reminded the crowd in one Narendra Modi rally in Delhi, in Manmohan Singh we have a sardar who has proven to be spectacularly not asar-dar.
Once it was a good thing that Manmohan Singh was mild-mannered, soft-spoken, cerebral and fundamentally decent. He embodied decency in politics. But ambition, as Shakespeare said, should be made of sterner stuff. Now all of those traits are derided as marks of shame, the tell-tale signs of a man who allowed himself to be emasculated and that too by a wily woman, Italian to boot.
In the eyes of his detractors, Singh has become our goongi gudiya.
In his place we now have Narendra Modi – the asli mard, the red-blooded vegetarian, a testosterone pill packed into a half-kurta. Not surprisingly in the lead-up to May 12th groups of Modi-bhakts would gun down the streets of Varanasi on their motorbikes, standing up and pumping the air with their fists as they roared Har Har Modi while pedestrians scuttled out of the way. If someone had ever tried to do the same for Manmohan Singh, they would have been laughed out of town.
Actually perhaps the last prime minister who might have fitted a tribute from amped-up biker gangs was Indira Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi tried to pull off the “nani ka yaad dila doonga” machismo and the whole country snickered.
Manmohan Singh’s departure, in a sense, definitively marks the end of an era of prime ministers cut from Nehruvian cloth and Gandhian cap. Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Inder Kumar Gujral, P.V. Narasimha Rao – all very different men but united in one respect. None of them would have ever boasted about a chhappan inch chhaati.
Modi taps into what Stephen Ducat calls the “politics of anxious masculinity” in his book The Wimp Factor. Ducat argues that the “most important thing about a man is not being a woman” and therefore it becomes imperative in politics and personal life to “repudiate everything feminine.” And what makes a man feminine? It has nothing to do with the silly Head and Shoulders men’s shampoo ads playing on television these days.
“The affectations of aristocracy were seen as markers of effeminacy,” says Ducat in an interview. He says in American politics “it is a short step from seeming gilded to looking gelded.” So a George W. Bush, though he came from a wealthy Republican dynasty, turned his inarticulateness and lack of intellectual heft into a faux working-class guy persona that gave him an advantage over a John Kerry whose verbose way with words became the telltale sign of effete elitism.
In India it’s a little different. It’s actually the gilded Rahul who is the tongue-tied inarticulate intellectual lightweight compared to Modi who has built a reputation as a punchy speaker and efficient administrator. Modi has skillfully deployed a folksy demeanour and earthy language to turn this election into a battle between na-mard Macaulay-putras and chaiwallah dhartiputras. He played up his lower caste background to put himself out there as the hard-scrabble son of the soil who struggled against great odds and came out on top while his prime ministerial predecessors appear to be genteel men of much more privilege - dynastic, class or at least educational.
Often the red-blooded macho politician comes into his own in the wake of some great national crisis. 9/11 actually made Bush. Until then he had been the man who had snuck into the White House thanks to hanging chads. In India, there was no such singular national emergency that created this clamour for a decisive leader.
It was really a death by a thousand cuts. “When 26/11 happened a strong prime minister would have been there or at least on television,” says Lord Meghnad Desai. “It took 36 hours for the prime minister to get on television. When Oklahoma bombing happened Clinton was there in no time at all.” When the channels were in an uproar about scam after scam, Manmohan Singh was silent. During the Anna Hazare showdown we were treated to the spectacle of Singh standing helplessly in parliament while a booing opposition drowned out his speech. What made the spectacle even more ludicrous was his old-fashioned oddly courteous letter to Anna expressing his “deep and abiding concern” about his health – just days after his government had thrown the man into Tihar jail. And the nadir came when Rahul Gandhi tore up that ordnance in the Press Club. It allowed Modi to tut-tut with mocking sympathy in rally after rally asking kisne pradhan mantri ki pagri uchhali? (who cast away his turban) evoking a vivid image of a prime minister stripped of dignity and yes, masculinity.
The danger in rejecting the model of masculinity that a Manmohan Singh represents wholesale is that we also end up regarding those basic traits of decency, equanimity, collegiality, courtesy as something pathetic, the last refuge of losers. In his blog Arnab Ray, who blogs as Great Bong, writes angrily that Singh was the shining inspirational example of the political achiever “who was sitting at the table not because he was someone’s son, or because he beat up a lot of other guys in college with hockey sticks, but because he was smarter and more educated than anyone else in the room.” By his passivity and inaction, Singh ruined it for thousands who might have thought that in fact you could study hard, play by the rules, be decent, polite and non-aggressive and still be a man who succeeds in a man’s world.
Lord Desai argues that it’s evidence of the levels of “deterioration in Indian politics that decency was even thought to be a great card” instead of being taken as a given in public life. And just as a decent man can preside timidly over great corruption scams, a rough-hewn leader can be incorruptibly honourable. Those things are not mutually incompatible.
But those are just niceties lost in a political drama where the overarching narrative has become: real men won, the sissies lost, stop whining. And the temptation will be to take all that was once thought of as fundamentally good about the rise of a man like Manmohan Singh and regard it as the baggage of the loser to be jettisoned as a new sheriff with a different kind of swagger rides into Lutyensabad.
Manmohan Singh was once the smart strong and silent man. Now he leaves office as the silenced man – neither blue-blooded, nor red-blooded, just bloodless.
Updated Date: May 15, 2014 11:42:06 IST