The honesty and integrity myth: Will the real Manmohan Singh please stand up?

"The only non-depreciating asset a person can have is his image," said a Delhi-based PR and image-guru several years ago.

“Image - build it and protect it,” added another image-entrepreneur from Chennai almost at the same time.

Both these aphorisms together would have made a perfect tag-line for Manmohan Singh who became the Prime Minister of India much later. By strange coincidence, they also justify the irony that the man who heads a government steeped in the biggest known scams in independence India is credited with impeccable honesty and integrity.

For Singh’s crafty honesty-campaigners, it didn’t matter that he headed a government that has seen scams that could have drowned many small countries - the cash-for-votes, the 2G, the CWG and the coalgate - and many minor ones. By repeating it a million times, the Congress and even his opponents, including Anna Hazare and Ramdev, made him India’s most honest man.

 The honesty and integrity myth: Will the real Manmohan Singh please stand up?

Is honesty an abstract philosophical attribute in the real world of political and bureaucratic corruption? Reuters

What else could have done the trick for him, but the non-depreciating asset of the image of honesty and integrity that he had built and assiduously protected all these years. His physical frailty, meagre bank-accounts, frugal lifestyle, (literally) quiet manners and a Maruti 800 became part of his image-compact.

But on Friday, BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy deflated the honesty-myth when he called him the “most dishonest prime minister since independence.”

The reason? The CBI director’s sensational disclosure that his agency’s coalgate draft was vetted by the PMO and the coal and law ministries. "This is a clear example how the prime minister and the law minister influenced the CBI. We want the prime minister to resign," Rudy said.

Rudy’s charge is certainly’s justifiable - if Singh’s honesty and integrity are real, why does his ministry secretly want to read the CBI report, that too against the express directions of the Supreme Court. What are they anxious about?

In the process, Rudy also lent his voice to the doubts of millions of Indians. Are his honesty and integrity real or a cover for corruption by his party, political-partners and colleagues?

Do his personal honesty and integrity matter when he silently presides over a regime that is accused of mega-scams? How can one call himself honest, when he seems to have allowed at least the communications and coal ministries to indulge in such massive and blatant levels of corruption?

If he is really honest as the people have been made to believe, why have he and the Congress dodged the 2G prime-accused A Raja’s charge that he did nothing without the knowledge of the Prime Minister? Why did the JPC, headed by a curiously resurrected PC Chacko, stoically stonewalled the demands by Raja that he wanted to depose?

Is honesty an abstract philosophical attribute in the real world of political and bureaucratic corruption?

Political observers had begun to pick holes in Manmohan Singh’s image trickery quite a while ago. Writing in Outlook magazine, as early as 2010, Madhu Kishwar asked the same question. She in fact had raised questions not only on the scams, but also on his political integrity that looked questionable in Kashmir and in his own election to the Rajya Sabha from Assam by claiming that he was a resident of the state.

“A PM who compromises national interest, as in Kashmir, just to indulge the personal fancy of the PM in waiting, a PM who looks the other way while his Cabinet colleagues brazenly loot public funds and get away with extorting thousands of crores by way of kickbacks, a PM who is widely perceived and lampooned as a “rubber stamp” does not merit being called “an honest man” or a “man of integrity” because integrity in his job demands putting national interest above partisan politics and personal loyalties.” she wrote.

In an article titled “Nobel Prize for Honesty”, journalist MJ Akbar looked at the honesty-angle from a political perspective. It presented another interpretation of the man.

“The prime minister is a politician. Any suggestion to the contrary is promotion of a myth. Evidence suggests that his populism would be community-oriented rather than poverty-specific. He understands the nuances of the game better than some self-proclaimed professionals imagine. Community is the key: poverty is too amorphous an identity, whereas caste and religion are the truly powerful instruments of mobilisation. It is not accidental that Singh’s cabinet has scheduled a caste census for next year.

“Being a politician, he knows that his main responsibility is to keep the government afloat until heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi declares himself fit to rule rather than merely campaign through non-sequiturs.”

The honesty-and-integrity image of Manmohan Singh that the scamsters of the Congress and its UPA-partners used as cover is certainly wearing off. The questions on both the 2G and coalgate by political parties, parliamentarians and the general public cannot be quelled by quaint manners and adhering to the PR and image rule.

Apparently Manmohan Singh had advised his ministers to follow the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). India, ratified the convention in 2011 which demands a series of administrative and legal steps. Has he been serious, or was his advise a reflection of his sense of humour as MJ Akbar alluded to? Last year, he even announced that the UPA wanted to use technology to curb dishonesty.

Rudy’s charge should be the beginning to unpack the myth of integrity and honesty of Manmohan Singh. What does it exactly mean, if it cannot prevent, or at least take action (asset recovery is an important undertaking for ratifying the UN convention) against corruption by his ministers?

Will the real Manmohan Singh please stand up?

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2013 13:08:10 IST