Many people have commented that Manmohan Singh is a different man after the trust vote in Parliament — more confident, assertive, someone who has manoeuvred to become the obvious candidate for prime minister, if the UPA should win the next elections. Perhaps, but what may have changed more than the man himself are our perceptions of him.
After he ceased being finance minister in 1996, friends advised Dr Singh to not get lost in the value-free world of Congress politics, and to nurse his support base among those who admired him for spearheading economic reforms. Dr Singh’s usual response, stated with his shy smile, was: “But I am in politics.” That was usually met with a sceptical silence, as though his listeners didn’t see him that way at all.
It is of course one thing for an economist-administrator to say “I am in politics”, and quite another to say “I am a politician”. It is a difference that the public recognises, because its standards of judging him have changed. Politics is about power, not morality. It is about winning, not being right or wrong. Which is why politicians in India are not judged by the middle-class morality of the kind that people preach more than they actually practise; instead, the questions asked are: Do they represent your interests? Can they attract voters? Do they exercise power and lead effectively? Do they make the right compromises in the application of statecraft? When the game itself is the art of the possible, the focus is on the ends, not the means. That is why people who value integrity will still admire Mayawati for the way she has positioned herself. And that is why none of the muck associated with winning the trust vote has stuck to Dr Singh, he is simply viewed as someone who faced a contest and won. To misquote Shakespeare, all the world loves a winner.
A columnist writing in this newspaper in the mid-1990s had said that while Dr Singh was personally honest, as finance minister he had protected corrupt people in his ministry. Dr Singh was most upset at the charge. Today, it can be said with little chance of contradiction that Dr Singh remains personally honest, but that he has less than honest people in his Cabinet —and I doubt that the Prime Minister would take umbrage. Indeed, when he retained Shibu Soren in his Cabinet, despite a charge sheet having been filed against him, Dr Singh deflected criticism by calling for a debate on morality in public life.
Dr Singh has adapted to coalition politics, which means not being able to choose the company he keeps. The trick is to swim in a dirty pool without having the dirt rub off on you (as Sonia Gandhi has done). Dr Singh has also given up focusing on the goals dear to him as finance minister (like fiscal correction). In 1993 he denounced Independence Day giveaways announced by Narasimha Rao by declaring that you cannot spend your way out of poverty; 15 years later, that is exactly what his government does. Indeed, he asserts that subsidies will not be reduced. And he gives the finance minister short shrift when he tries to reduce the fiscal impact of the pay revision for government employees. In the dying days of the Rao government, he spoke out courageously against the crony capitalism that he saw. That problem has grown, but Dr Singh speaks now on other issues.
It was perhaps Chesterton who said that you don’t use the same navigational techniques when you swim out from a river into the open sea. Manmohan Singh has left the confines of the narrow river in which he swam for decades, and is in the open sea of politics. And he is navigating by a different set of rules. That is the change in the man. He is no longer in politics. He has become a politician.
6 months ago