It is hard to read the face of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Whether he is happy or sad from within depends on how you see it (his facial expression). So in January 2014, when Singh addressed the media, just for the third time in his 10-year term as India’s top decision maker, many felt he was left alone to defend all the deeds or misdeeds of the two UPA governments from 2004 to 2014. His one statement, which made the headlines, made many feel pity on his situation – a righteous, honest man was wronged by the dynasty and compulsions of coalition politics, they claimed in Delhi’s corridors of power.
“I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament,” Singh had then told reporters without showing a single strain of emotion on his face.
Throughout his tenure, Manmohan Singh, the economist-turned-yet-to-be-acknowledged-politician, kept everyone guessing on whether he was an overrated economist or an underrated politician as the country witnessed a series of scams, consumed rising inflation, suffered policy paralysis and traveled from the GDP highs of his first term to the unexpected slump towards the end of his tenure in 2014. It was unexpected of an economist PM, who had to his aide an economist finance minister as well.
Though his failure as an economist PM was highlighted by the opposition, little was written or talked about Manmohan Singh – the politician who managed to hold on to his seat for 10 years, presided over the surprise marriage of the Congress and the Left in the first term, kept raucous and demanding allies like Lalu Prasad’s RJD in good humour and, more importantly, never, ever unnerved the dynasty. He was riled by the media and the opposition for being a “maun (silent)” PM. But, a shrewd Singh used silence as a weapon and the underrated politician bettered the best of political minds for 10 years!
Watch Manmohan Singh’s speech in Gujarat on Tuesday
Singh had himself highlighted his success as a politician during media interaction in 2014. The then PM said that there was a “general perception” that Congress can’t run a coalition government. “Congress ability to run a coalition government was to be tested, and we showed that the Congress party can successfully manage the coalition to complete not one, but two terms. In the process, there have been some compromises, but I can assure you that those compromises relate to peripheral areas,” The Hindu had quoted him as saying.
Even now, it may still be a matter of debate whether Singh is a better economist or a politician. Here are two points that may make one judge him better: First, a politician, as the term is now being understood, would never show a clear path or prescribe the correct solution to a problem. He or she would do all to confuse you with jugglery of words. Manmohan Singh, the politician, is full of this talent.
Second, an economist, by the nature of his training, would give you a clear suggestion/solution on how to deal with a problem. For instance, if it is clear that the economy is hit by a slowdown, the economist would say it is time to provide some fiscal stimulus. He won’t say lets wait, do it gradually etc…etc. The real economist would convince you with his logic, give direct answers and not trap you with just words that may fly over your head. Not many would like it, but Singh has this rare ability to avoid direct answers and betray logic – which is always the forte of a seasoned politician.
It is interesting that for Singh, the History became kinder sooner than he may have expected. Just after two years in power, his successor Narendra Modi came up with a big bang move of demonetisaion to take on corruption and black money – head on. Modi’s opposition Congress was looking for one big issue to beat his spreading charm. Congress felt demonetisation was just the perfect fodder it needed to stop BJP bandwagon, after it almost failed to do so following the surgical strikes in September 2016 and in previous months by raking up issues like intolerance. And to the surprise of many, Singh led the Congress charge.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 8, 2017
As an economist, Singh agrees that black money, corruption, fake currency notes, etc need to be curbed and cashless transactions need to be promoted. As the PM he had failed to do anything much about these issues but the politician in him came up with a solid set of words in quick time against demonetisaiton – ‘organised loot’, ‘legalised plunder’, ‘monumental disaster’ and many…His phrases made headlines. Singh, the economist also got it right by predicting a two-point slump in GDP. But Singh the politician, never said the GDP slump would be temporary. Singh, the economist, didn’t wait to study the real impact of demonetisaion as Singh, the politician, made his conclusions early, and there was no looking back.
When Modi came up with the GST rollout this year, Singh, the politician, damned it though it was one of his dream reforms, which he failed to introduce as the PM. To this day, Singh maintains that GST was rolled out by Modi in haste and its design is imperfect. But Singh, the politician, doesn’t say why his party okayed GST in Parliament in the first place, if its very design was imperfect, or why even the Congress-ruled states continue to participate in GST Council meets.
In a recent interview to BloombergQuint, Singh agreed that formalisation of the informal sector, should be “welcomed”. Modi is trying these by moves like demonetisation and GST. But the politician in Singh has a rider: “But the means is as important as the ends.”
If men as wise and learned like Singh have failed to find that perfect “means” despite being part of India’s planning for decades, then how can the country take a leap forward amid growing global challenges. The other way of doing things is by just doing it, and making necessary changes as per the feedback received — unexpectedly this is being done by Modi, which has apparently brought the best out of Singh – the politician. “We must put the nation above all politics and strive to seek solutions to our challenges of jobless and unequal economic growth. These are massive challenges that need creative and consensual policy solutions.” Singh told BloombergQuint, without even hinting that the Congress would ever want to work hand in hand with BJP or Modi for the country.
Speaking in Gujarat on the eve of demonetisation anniversary, Singh said on Tuesday, “My dear friends and fellow countrymen, black money and tax evasion are a menace that the country needs to tackle, but demonetisation was clearly not the solution. It has been suggested many times in the past as one of the methods to eradicate black money.”
Considering the point he had made during the interview, one wonders if Singh, the politician will come up with what he thinks as the “real solution” to deal with tax evasion and black money. Let’s see how Singh further evolves or go silent after the Gujarat elections.