Oct 3, 2008

India - Decoding the Manmohan Singh Enigma

Harish Khare

Do we really know Manmohan Singh as well as we think? The recently concluded visit to the United States and France provided a glimpse.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is back from his longest overseas trip. Engagements during such trips are minutely orchestrated affairs. Spontaneity, if any, is carefully planned.
But there were still two rather revealing moments during the longish road trip which added to the still unfolding enigma of Manmohan Singh, the man and the politician.
Both moments found Dr. Singh speaking without the restraint of a script, usually vetted by four or five aides who among themselves manage, as a routine, to suck life and liveliness out of any prose.
The first unscripted moment came at the White House on September 25.
The Prime Minister virtually went into a rhetorical overdrive, with President Bush sitting just a handshake away. For nearly five minutes he spoke extempore; as usual not a word out of syntax; but, it is difficult to recall, when, in recent months, the Prime Minister allowed himself to speak off the cuff. The praise he showered on his host seemed to come naturally and from the heart. This was Manmohan Singh uncensored.
As a handful of us present in the Oval Office incredulously heard him proclaim the people of India’s love for George Bush, he was probably convinced of the correctness of his own conviction about the new engagement between India and the United States. Perhaps he also knew that the “India loves George Bush” song will not play well at all in Lucknow or Hyderabad, he still belted it out.
Did the occasion overwhelm his better judgment?
After all, the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues had landed in Washington just at a time when the American leadership, from President George Bush down to the lowly Congressman, found itself in midst of a grave financial crisis.
Indeed even as the Indian press contingent was checking in at one of the side gates of the White House, another horde of newsmen, mostly American, had already gathered, keeping a vigil on the meeting President Bush was having with the presidential candidates, John McCain and Barak Obama.
Dr. Singh had reason to be grateful that the President was willing to spend so much time for India and its Prime Minister at such a distracting time.
We learnt later that there was nervousness in the prime ministerial team whether the meeting and the dinner thereafter would come off at all.
If the Prime Minister’s proclamation of Indian people’s love for Mr. Bush was music to the presidential ear, what Dr. Singh heard from his host was not unmelodious either. The Prime Minister was told that Mr. Bush found his company “calming.” A moment of personal satisfaction — to be savoured notwithstanding Mr. Bush’s rather low standing in the domestic (American and Indian) political discourse.
The second moment came at the very end of the long journey.
The Prime Minister was answering a few questions from the mediapersons travelling with him. He was asked whether there were two Manmohan Singhs: one, a non-politician political leader, uncomfortable with the soggy compromises of the coalition politics; and, the other, unsentimentally determined to pursue what he had set out to achieve (the nuclear deal) even if it meant risking his own government. He was asked whether the first Manmohan Singh had metamorphosed into the second.
The good doctor was flustered; embarrassed at this suggestion of induction into the dark hall of amoral realpolitik; he paused, took a sip of water and then recovered sufficiently to come out with a well composed spiel about the difficulties of working with coalition partners, etc. The googly was neatly deflected for a single.
The follow-up question was a bouncer. But he had recovered his poise by the time he was asked if he was going to be the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate. He simply ducked it: “the Congress party has several leaders who are equally or better qualified than I am.” He was not going to let the calculating Congress crowd gang up on him.
When combined, the two unscripted occasions do give a rare glimpse of Dr. Singh in an unguarded moment to reveal a man determined to have his say, and, if necessary, his way.

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