PM's history lesson: Is he the last Mughal of modern politics?

Manmohan Singh’s fixation with history, and how it would judge his legacy, indicates that his fascination for finding a place in the India chronicle was so overwhelming that he lost sense of the present

ajay

Ajay Singh | January 4, 2014


Towards the end of his term, Manmohan Singh seemed to be relying more on historians than his contemporary critics to get a fair evaluation of his legacy.
Towards the end of his term, Manmohan Singh seemed to be relying more on historians than his contemporary critics to get a fair evaluation of his legacy.

Economist prime minister Manmohan Singh is not unfamiliar with history. Not long ago, he presided over a function at his residence which saw the release of an authoritative and scholarly book on Indian history authored by his daughter, Upinder Singh.

Upinder Singh teaches history at Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College and her book gives an exhaustive narrative of history – from the ancient to early medieval India. Ironically, the glorious phase of Indian history of the Mauryan empire is summarised in less than 50 pages and much of the space is devoted to archeological, numismatic and other historical evidence bequeathed by King Ashoka.

It would be naïve to think that a scholar prime minister steeped into academics would be oblivious of one basic principle of historiography: that the rich legacy one leaves behind is the only source of his evaluation for posterity. And nobody knows this better than Singh. The prime minister’s frequent refuge in history during his farewell press conference on January 3 was a ploy to postpone critical scrutiny of his present status. For, he is well aware that unlike Ashoka, he is hardly leaving a legacy which can merit even a favourable footnote in history books.

There is no doubt that by serving two terms in one go, and being the second longest-serving prime minister of India after Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Manmohan Singh has secured his place in history. But a careful scrutiny of his dubious legacies would only demean his surviving capacity. For instance, what he described as the highest point in his career – of sealing the Indo-US nuclear deal – was also his nadir, when his government was found to be involved in brazenly buying MPs to ensure its survival.

History would have evaluated him differently had he pressed with the nuclear deal without compromising on morality and principles of ethics. Similarly, Singh would have been given the benefit of doubt had this been the only aberration. Far from it, in fact: Singh’s tenure was characterised by his abiding faith in his survival instincts. He put up with all kinds of humiliation right from the beginning of his tenure. Those who know the details of functioning of the government in UPA-I would testify that there were several ministers who enjoyed complete autonomy from the prime minister’s office.

Pranab Mukherjee, Kamal Nath, Sharad Pawar, Dayanidhi Maran and A Raja were running their own ministries beyond the pale of PMO’s scrutiny. There had, at the time, been many instances where Kamal Nath’s commerce ministry was not acting in tandem with the PMO’s policies.

Similarly, Pawar, Maran and Raja, alliance partners all, cared less about the PMO and more for the real leader – AICC chief Sonia Gandhi. Though this dual centre of power facilitated Singh’s survival, it also promoted an unabashed culture of cronyism and corruption, which resulted in coal scam and 2G scam. It also infused a sense of cockiness among the ruling party’s leaders who ridiculed, ran down and tried to manipulate established institutions like the CAG and the supreme court, which ran afoul with it.

What appeared quite bewildering is reduction of the prime minister’s status as an abject caricature of India’s last Moghul Bahadur Shah Zafar, whose writ did not run within even the walled city of old Delhi. Towards the end of his term, Singh seemed to be relying more on historians than his contemporary critics to get a fair evaluation of his legacy.

Perhaps his fascination for finding a place in history was overwhelming that he lost sense of the present. Unfortunately Singh is not Winston Churchill, who said, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

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