Falling Man

Manmohan Singh at the centre of the storm

01 October, 2011

[ I ]

ON THE MORNING OF 15 AUGUST, India’s Independence Day, it was raining cats and dogs in Delhi. By 7 am, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was atop the ramparts of the 17th-century Red Fort, hoisting the flag and saluting the assembled soldiers and citizens from behind a glass enclosure. Amid a sea of umbrellas, children who had gathered to watch the parade ran about, as if at a disorderly festival ground; the soldiers and paramilitary troops -paraded on the wet asphalt, completely drenched.

It was an unusually gloomy Independence Day, and not merely because of the inclement weather. After a cursory presentation of his government’s achievements over the past seven years, Singh devoted almost the entirety of his eighth Independence Day speech to a series of crises: the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai; the ongoing “challenge of Naxalism”; inflation and rising food prices; the “tensions caused” by land acquisition; and, most of all, “the problem of corruption”—“a difficulty for which no government has a magic wand”.

After his speech, Singh was driven to Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road for the party’s own flag hoisting ceremony. Traditionally, the Congress party president presides over the flag raising, but with Sonia Gandhi hospitalised in the US, many predicted Rahul Gandhi would seize the moment and hoist the flag himself. Instead, he passed the duty to the senior Congressman Motilal Vora, and Singh stood nearby with the party’s senior leaders as they saluted the flag and sang: jhanda ooncha rahe hamara, vijayi vishwa tiranga pyara.... (Let our flag always be lofty, this world-conquering, beloved tricolour.) Manmohan Singh, in his iconic powder blue turban, and the Home Minister P Chidambaram were the only ones not wearing the Gandhi cap—a one-time symbol of the party of Independence that had more recently become the emblem of its newest and most popular nemesis, Anna Hazare.

Union ministers P Chidambaram (right) and Kapil Sibal (centre) who, in August, made an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Anna Hazare’s hunger strike. SHEKHAR YADAV / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

The Maharashtrian activist had announced his plan to begin an indefinite hunger strike in Delhi the following day, and Congress leaders were buckling under the pressure: one quarter of Singh’s speech at the Red Fort had been devoted to corruption and the Lokpal Bill, whose passage Hazare was demanding. After the flag hoisting, Rahul Gandhi called Singh, Chidambaram and Defence Minister AK Antony into a meeting in the party office to discuss Hazare. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the party’s most reliable problem solver, had already left the premises, and Rahul sent someone to retrieve him.

According to accounts provided by three party insiders—two members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and a top Congress functionary—Rahul expressed his displeasure with the personal attacks on Hazare that had been launched in his absence, and suggested that greater tact should be employed to deal with Hazare’s impending fast.

On a rainy Monday morning, Singh delivers his eighth Independence Day speech from a glass enclosure atop the Red Fort. AP PHOTO

Unlike his mother, who is said to be firm and precise in her orders to senior party leaders, Rahul’s directions proved insufficiently forceful to avert the looming disaster. After the meeting, according to the three party sources, Chidambaram took charge of the situation in concert with Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, and the two lawyers-turned-politicians devised a plan to prevent Hazare from staging his fast. Citing the best legal justifications—section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, and 188 of the Indian Penal Code—Chidambaram sanctioned Hazare’s arrest the following morning, and then all hell broke loose. Agitated crowds massed outside Tihar Jail while Hazare took maximum advantage of Chidambaram’s error, refusing to accept release until his conditions for the fast were granted. Hazare and his allies had humiliated the government, and the ensuing spectacle at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan soon became Indian television’s most successful reality show, with record-setting ratings for the nonstop coverage on every single news channel.

Singh’s prime ministership, already battered by 12 months of scandals and setbacks, seemed to have hit a new low; his impeccable reputation as an incorruptible man of integrity—which served for so long as a firewall against criticism—no longer shielded him from the consequences of his government’s failings. If the prime minister privately expressed any opposition to the decision to arrest Hazare, he seems to have done nothing to prevent it.

“It was Manmohan Singh who lost face, since it was his decision to leave everything in the hands of Chidambaram and company,” one of the CWC members said. “The people who make mistakes keep making them, and the ministers—especially those who are professionals—are so arrogant.” While the nation’s attention was fixed on Ramlila Maidan, the upper echelons of the Congress drew their knives in private—and they did not spare the PM: “Everyone called up everyone else, and they were all so furious at Chidambaram, Sibal and Manmohan Singh,” said the party functionary.

The ‘professionals’ were soon pushed aside in favour of Pranab Mukherjee, who managed to negotiate a resolution with Team Anna to bring an end to the fast after a special session of Parliament voiced its near-unanimous assent to a Lokpal Bill that met Hazare’s conditions. “When it was finally decided to let Pranab deal with the Hazare thing, it meant snubbing Chidamabaram and Sibal” and sidelining Singh, according to the CWC member. “What was it, if it wasn’t a public snub, that Manmohan Singh had to hand over the political leadership to Pranab because he wasn’t capable of defending his own colleague’s blunders?” the party functionary added.

During the marathon Parliament session on 27 August, which began with Mukherjee’s solemn warning that “the largest functional democracy of the world is at a very crucial stage”, more than two dozen parliamentarians stood up in the Lok Sabha to speak on corruption and the Lokpal Bill; another 102 presented written statements. Manmohan Singh did not utter a word, and sat like a mute witness, his face fixed with an impassive grimace against a barrage of criticism from the opposition benches.

The harshest blow may have come from Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. In a fiery speech delivered in Hindi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP did more than criticise the prime minister: she mocked his reputation as an ineffectual figure even among his own colleagues. “Waise to hamare pradhan mantri bolte nahi hai, aur bolte hain to koi unki sunta nahin hain (Normally, our prime minister doesn’t talk, but when he does, then no one [in his cabinet] even listens to him),” she said

[ II ]

THAT MANMOHAN SINGH'S star has fallen, and far, may be the closest thing to a consensus in Indian politics today. The cautious smiles that briefly graced Singh’s face two years ago, in the wake of the Congress general election victory and his Indo-US nuclear deal, now seem a distant memory. The Anna Hazare fiasco was merely the latest in an apparently unending string of debacles for Singh and his government, which have steadily ground his formerly impeccable reputation into dust—at first slowly, and then all at once.

While the newspapers and television channels continue to lay siege to the government—feasting on a rich diet of unfolding scams, ongoing investigations, and the arrests of former ministers and MPs—the aam aadmi has been hit hard by skyrocketing food prices and runaway inflation, denting both the loyalty of Congress voters and the reputation for economic wizardry Singh earned by presiding over the liberalisation of the Indian economy as finance minister in 1991.

It was Manmohan Singh himself who said, in a 1996 interview, that “it is only a crisis that concentrates the mind.” But faced with too many crises to count, his government looks to be in disarray, and the man who helped steer India through its most perilous financial crisis and into an age of explosive growth—whose image has always been that of a swift, purposeful manager, too busy solving problems to play political games and preen for the cameras—now appears as a technocrat in way over his head, overwhelmed and out of steam, pale-faced and emotionally spent.

“The fall has been so dramatic,” said a former Union Cabinet minister who has known Singh since the 1960s. “There is a visible drift, without any direction, and he appears to be helpless. People will say that of course he is an honest man and nobody doubts his personal integrity, but when you are presiding over an outfit that is dealing in corruption, you have to answer for that. How do you defend it? You can’t defend it.”

“Just look at the cartoons,” the former minister continued. “He is shrinking in size every day. He must be feeling awful.”

“He is facing the worst situation in his life,” said Sanjaya Baru, a business journalist who served as Singh’s media advisor from 2004 to 2008. “In politics, it’s alright to be loved or hated, but you should never be ridiculed. And his problem today is that he has become an object of ridicule.”

With senior members of his own party openly speculating that he will be replaced before the next general election—the prospect may be unlikely, but the volume of such talk is significant nonetheless—it seems clear that Singh, now 79, is nearing the end of a long and extraordinary innings in public life. Before becoming finance minister in 1991 at the age of 58, he had held every top economic policy position: chief economic adviser, finance secretary, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and Reserve Bank of India governor. As the finance minister and then as prime minister, Singh quietly but decisively presided over the dismantling of the two foundational principles that had, for decades, defined both the Congress party and the nation: a socialist planned economy and a non-aligned foreign policy. In that sense, Manmohan Singh—who once answered a question about his legacy by saying “I hope I’ve earned a footnote in India’s long history”—may one day be credited with having transformed India more dramatically than Indira and Rajiv Gandhi combined.

At the moment, however, the prospective judgments of future historians can hardly comfort the beleaguered prime minister: escaping the harsh verdict of the present already looks like an impossible task. The prominent historian Ramachandra Guha, who has described the current administration as “inept and incompetent beyond words”, told me that he now regards Singh “increasingly as a tragic figure”.

“He’s intelligent, upright, and possesses all these vast experience of working in the government for over four decades,” Guha said. “But the timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty will make him a tragic figure in our history.”

Contemplating the case of Manmohan Singh throws up more questions than answers. An intensely private man, whom friends and associates invariably describe with adjectives like ‘shy’, ‘reticent’, ‘modest’ and ‘decent’, Singh prefers to shut himself away from the media and the public. His personal feelings and emotions are more closely guarded than state secrets—a trait he shares with the woman who appointed him, and one that lends the country’s most significant relationship an impregnable opacity. “He is basically a loner,” the former Union Cabinet minister said. “I don’t think he has many friends. He is a very shy person, and he must be hating the adverse publicity he is getting—he must be thinking, ‘What the hell did I get myself in to?’”

But somewhere between the mythic hero of 1991, the accidental PM of 2004 and the diminished leader of 2011 lies the real Manmohan Singh, though the man himself offers little assistance to anyone seeking to better understand his life and work. Through his office, the prime minister declined numerous requests to be interviewed, as he has done, with very few exceptions, for almost all media inquiries in the past seven years.

This story is therefore based on the accounts of others, gathered over the course of four months of research that included lengthy interviews with more than 40 people who have known and worked closely with Manmohan Singh in his private and public life during the last half-century.

Singh’s legendary reticence is no myth, but from the collected accounts of his associates, friends and relatives, a complex and sometimes contradictory picture can be assembled: self-effacing but confident; modest but ambitious; diffident yet determined; stubborn in his convictions but often selective in their application. His weakness and meekness as a politician have been greatly exaggerated, along with his subservience to Sonia Gandhi.

To the larger question of what led him to this unpleasant juncture in an otherwise exemplary career, only Manmohan Singh can provide a definitive answer, and his overwhelming reluctance to narrate his own story thus far suggests that readers are unlikely to find his memoirs in stores any time soon.

In a 2006 interview with the American talk-show host Charlie Rose, Manmohan Singh described himself, with ostentatious modesty, as “a small person put in this big chair”. Singh’s detractors would say that he has too often lived down to this self-portrait, while his defenders would take it as a sign of his admirable humility; all that can be added, in the present context, is that the former have begun to outnumber the latter.

[ III ]

FOR A MAN of such modesty and reserve, Manmohan Singh entered the national—and international—spotlight at a moment of great drama and upheaval, emerging from the relative anonymity of the higher bureaucracy as a slayer of socialist shibboleths who issued oracular pronouncements like “India needs to wake up” to admiring foreign journalists.

Prime Minister Singh at the World Economic Forum’s 25th India Economic Summit in 2009. PANKAJ NANGIA / BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES

When PV Narasimha Rao took office as the newly elected prime minister in June 1991, the world was in the throes of a rapid and abrupt reordering: communism had collapsed in Eastern Europe, the two Germanys had been reunited, the Soviet Union was within months of dissolution and the United States had gone to war to roll back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The situation in India was even more volatile: two governments had fallen in the brief interval between November 1990 and March 1991, and the Congress party’s candidate for prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated while campaigning in May 1991, leaving the party without a Gandhi as its leader for the first time in 25 years.

Rao, a shrewd Andhra politician who spoke more than a dozen languages and had earlier served as Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign minister, inherited an economy on the cusp of disaster. India’s debt to foreign lenders had nearly doubled between 1985 and 1991, and a series of external shocks—including the sudden spike in oil prices that accompanied the Gulf War—had reduced India’s foreign currency reserves to less than the amount required to finance two weeks of imports. The government was so desperate to raise funds that it had pawned 20 tonnes of gold confiscated from smugglers, which were secretly shipped to the Union Bank of Switzerland in exchange for $200 million. When that proved insufficient, another 47 tonnes from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) were sent to England and Japan to secure loans worth an additional $405 million. In a country where pawning the family jewellery would be an act of final desperation, the sense of alarm was palpable.

On the day Rao was elected to head the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP), a few days before he was sworn in as prime minister, he received an urgent visit from the cabinet secretary, Naresh Chandra. “I rang him up and said there was something very important he had to see,” Chandra told me. “I had prepared a seven or eight page memo on the crisis. When I gave it to him, he asked me, ‘Do you want me to read this right now? I’m very busy building the cabinet.’ I told him that could wait a few minutes, he should read this now. When he finished, he asked, ‘Is it as bad as this?’ I said, ‘In fact it is even worse.’” Chandra—accompanied by Finance Secretary SP Shukla and Chief Economic Adviser Deepak Nayyar—told Rao he could either continue the unsustainable status quo of emergency borrowing or announce that the government planned to liberalise the economy. “If it is our new policy,” Chandra told Rao, “there will be less criticism than if it seems we were asked to do it by the IMF and World Bank.”

Facing an economic catastrophe, Rao knew he needed to reach beyond the ranks of khadi-clad senior Congress leaders to select a finance minister, for three separate reasons: first, he would need a skilled economist to conduct negotiations with the international financial institutions; second, in the event of a backlash against the radical policy changes, an ‘outsider’ would be easier to dismiss from the cabinet; and third, if the new finance minister was successful, he still wouldn’t pose any threat to Rao’s own position in the party. To some extent, the blueprint for liberalisation had already taken shape, given India’s desperate need for huge loans; what remained to be determined were the details of its execution.

PC Alexander, a close friend of Rao who had been an influential principal secretary to Indira Gandhi, helped with the search. “Alexander would sit with PV, make calls, write names, try combinations, strike them out, and then write again,” recalled the former Union Cabinet minister. After Alexander’s first choice, the former RBI governor IG Patel, declined the offer, he called Manmohan Singh, Patel’s successor at the RBI. Singh was delighted and said he would eagerly accept the job, the former cabinet minister told me, but two days passed without any follow-up from Alexander.

On the morning of 22 June, a Saturday, Singh got a call in his office at the University Grants Commission, where he had been appointed chairman three months earlier. It was Rao, who was scheduled to take his oath as prime minister that afternoon. “PV asked Manmohan, ‘What are you doing there? Go home and change, and come straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan,’” the former cabinet minister said.

Singh was among a handful of cabinet ministers who took their oaths with Rao that Saturday afternoon, and he started the job immediately. “Manmohan started working from home on Saturday and Sunday,” said Mani Shankar Aiyar, who later served as a minister in Singh’s first cabinet. “He was already consulting with other economists and making plans to borrow funds.”

On Monday, his first day in office, Singh held a press conference to announce the scope of the impending reforms; he promised to clear the “cobwebs of unnecessary control” that had impeded economic development and decreed that “the world has changed, and the country must also change”.

The next day, Singh had his first official meeting with Rao, whose commitment to serious reform was still unknown. According to a senior secretary then in the finance ministry, “Manmohan was at sea, and still very nervous.” Singh told the prime minister that the country immediately needed a huge standby loan of at least $5 billion. To manage the current financial year would only require $2 billion, he suggested, but it would be prudent to take a larger loan from the IMF in anticipation of ongoing problems in the following year. “There was no ambiguity in Rao’s mind,” the senior secretary recalled. “He was more convinced than Manmohan Singh.” Rao approved Singh’s proposal on the spot, and the new finance minister returned to his office and immediately drafted a letter to the managing director of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, specifying India’s requirements and promising to undertake the necessary structural reforms in a manner consistent with “India’s social objectives”.

The following month would prove crucial: Singh had to prepare a budget that would pass muster with the IMF and any other international lenders looking for evidence that the commitment to liberalisation was sincere. “During that month of budget preparation, the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs met almost every day,” the senior secretary told me. “Manmohan was so indecisive and nervous that Rao ended up doing most of the talking and convincing the others himself.”

Singh’s starring role in the 1991 crisis was already enshrined in history by the time the term “Manmohanomics” was coined within a year or two of his first budget. The prime minister has modestly insisted that “no single person could claim credit” for the reforms, but time has steadily effaced the critical part played by Rao, who is today rarely credited with anything more than having selected Singh as his finance minister. “Manmohan was actually a convert, from the old system to the new,” the senior secretary said. “So like every convert, he was unsure, even if he gave the impression that things would all be fine. PV, who was known to be so indecisive—at cabinet committee meetings he couldn’t even decide between tea and coffee—was surprisingly sure that India had to deregulate and open its markets, and he gave Manmohan the crucial confidence to make those moves.”

“He feared he would be attacked by the party,” another top bureaucrat who worked with Singh at the finance ministry told me. “Because he had authored the current Five-Year Plan when he was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and he was now implementing policies which were totally contradictory. The PM and all of the secretaries told him it was okay, but it took time for this to sink in.”

On 24 July, a few weeks after presiding over a two-stage devaluation of the rupee, Singh stood up in the Lok Sabha to present his first budget, which laid out a series of structural reforms and fiscal adjustments: relaxation of industrial licensing, abolition of export subsidies, reduction in fund transfers to public enterprises and massive cuts in fertiliser subsidies and welfare programmes. At the close of his two-hour speech, the novice politician demonstrated a flair for rhetorical drama, uttering the lines that would be repeated in thousands of subsequent articles about Singh and the breakthrough of 1991:

I do not minimise the difficulties that lie ahead on the long and arduous journey on which we have embarked. But as Victor Hugo once said, ‘No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.’ I suggest to this august House that the emergence of India as a major economic power in the world happens to be one such idea. Let the whole world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.

Singh’s budget, which would come to symbolise the unleashing of the Indian economy, met with a cold reception within the Congress party. At a meeting after the budget speech to discuss the new economic policies, a sizable crowd of MPs vented their outrage: they may have had little sense of how the macroeconomic changes would impact their political careers, but they were certain that slashing fertiliser subsidies, among other measures, would spell doom at the polls. “There was considerable unrest in the Congress ranks,” a CWC member and former cabinet minister told me. “There were as many as 63 backbenchers who spoke against Manmohan. PV really had to save him in that meeting.”

[ IV ]

On 22 JULY 2008, almost 17 years to the day after he delivered the budget speech that launched his political career, Manmohan Singh stood once again in the Lok Sabha to stave off its demise. The fateful trust vote that threatened to bring down his government over the Indo-US nuclear deal was minutes away, and Singh rose to defend both himself and the nuclear pact.

The speech that Singh prepared but did not deliver—after an uproar from the opposition benches cut him off—closed with a rare allusion to the story of his own life:

Every day that I have been prime minister of India I have tried to remember that the first ten years of my life were spent in a village with no drinking water supply, no electricity, no hospital, no roads and nothing that we today associate with modern living. I had to walk miles to school, I had to study in the dim light of a kerosene oil lamp.... On every day that I have occupied this high office, I have tried to fulfil the dream of that young boy from that distant village.

The basics of Singh’s journey from a tiny village in what is now Pakistan to 7 Race Course Road are well-known, but the prime minister has typically refused to make political use of his rise from humble beginnings. When I mentioned Barack Obama’s skilful employment of his own biography to Sanjaya Baru, the PM’s former media adviser, the frustrations of his earlier job came boiling to the surface. “He always shied away,” Baru said. “He prevented me from telling his story; he said to me, ‘No, no, I don’t want to build my image. I’m just here to do work.’ He is afraid of being a political personality.”

“In fact, his life story is far more inspiring than Obama’s—with the background he came from, the struggle he went through and the heights he has reached,” Baru continued. “The tragedy is that he hasn’t allowed anyone to tell it. But I think now it is too late.”

Students at the Urdu-medium school in the village of Gah in Pakistan where Manmohan Singh studied until he was 10. COURTESY RAHEEL QURESHI / DAWN.COM (DAWN GROUP OF MEDIA, PAKISTAN)

Singh was born in 1932 in a village called Gah, about 60 km south of what is now Islamabad; his family were Punjabi traders of the Khatri caste. His father, Gurmukh Singh Kohli, was a small-time dry fruits trader who bought wholesale stock from Afghanistan and resold it in smaller towns in the Punjab. Singh’s mother, Amrit Kaur, died when he was only five months old, and he was raised largely by his paternal grandmother, Jamna Devi, whom he called Dadi. Singh’s father was often away from home, but his principled business conduct still exerted an influence on the young boy, who everyone then simply called Mohana. In Amritsar earlier this year, I met Prem Kumar, a trader of tea leaves who lived next to the future prime minister and his family after Partition. “Gurmukh had a reputation of staying away from foul tricks,” Kumar told me. “He was a silent worker, and he chose to speak very little.” His maxim, Kumar said, was “Imandari se kamai huyo ik roti bemani ki do rotiyon se acchi hai”: One roti earned through honest means is better than two earned dishonestly.

Singh attended an Urdu-medium village primary school until he was 10, at which point he shifted to an upper primary school in Peshawar, posting top marks all along. Early in the summer of 1947, the year that Singh sat for his matriculation examination, the family fled Peshawar for Amritsar: Singh’s father had anticipated the violence that would follow Partition and, shortly before the bloodshed began, he moved his family into an upper-floor apartment along the narrow lanes behind the Golden Temple.

The alleys of Amritsar’s old city haven’t changed too much in the intervening decades, but the building where the future prime minister once lived is now a dilapidated wreck. Known in the neighbourhood as Sant Ram Da Tabela, it’s been sealed for several years as a result of litigation between the owner and a bank, and has become a sanctuary for rats and crows. Sunlight barely falls on the narrow alley, and I smelled the pungent odour of rotten groceries mingling with baking sweets. “The air wasn’t any different 60 years ago,” said Prem Kumar, who was a neighbour to the Singhs beginning in 1947. Nor, it seems, was the prime minister: “Manmohan would sit on the staircase and read the whole day,” Kumar recalled. “He barely got out on the lanes, nor played with anyone. He studied like there was an examination every tomorrow.”

After arriving in Amritsar at a moment of great political and economic instability, Singh firmly resisted his father’s demands that he join the dry fruit trade. He wanted to go to college and earn his degree, and pleaded that he would earn a scholarship and still lend a hand with the business—as his father’s accountant. He eventually prevailed, thanks to the intercession of his grandmother, and began his degree in economics at Hindu College in Amritsar.

Manmohan Singh’s brothers watching the announcement that he would become prime minister from their home in Amritsar. STR / AFP PHOTO

Singh had a meteoric rise through academia, funded by a succession of merit scholarships, from Amritsar to Chandigarh to Cambridge to Oxford. Between his Cambridge degree and the completion of his PhD at Oxford, he became the youngest professor at his own alma mater, Panjab University in Chandigarh. “He was a very serious teacher,” said HS Shergill, one of Singh’s students who later became a professor of economics at the university. “He always started the classes on time, and marked the papers very stringently.”

Manmohan Singh with his wife Gursharan Kaur and their daughter Upinder Singh in the 1960s.

It was in Chandigarh that Manmohan Singh first met Gursharan Kaur, a BA student. Gursharan has said they became engaged without ever having seen each other, but Manmohan’s younger brother, Surjeet Singh Kohli, told me with a smile that theirs was a love marriage. “They were an affable, romantic couple, totally happy with each other,” said RP Bambah, one of Singh’s colleagues at Panjab University. “Manmohan had a bicycle, and on Friday they would go together to Kiran Cinema,” then the only movie hall in the city that played English films. Kiran is still standing, but it’s been outclassed by fancy new multiplexes. “We can’t offer the facilities that the theatres in the malls offer,” the manager told me. “So we’re B-class now—meant for the auto rickshaw drivers.” Little did he know that the man who opened India to malls and multiplexes used to bicycle to his theatre.

The austere habits of Singh’s university days have stayed with him through the decades. “Manmohan and Gursharan haven’t changed at all,” Bambah said. “Gursharan remembered that I liked rajma, so she had it for me on the table when I visited them recently. Even after 60 years, it looked as if we were sharing the same meal we once shared in the university staff quarters.”

The second of his three daughters, Daman Singh, told me that her earliest memory of her father was as a “workaholic”. “As children,” she said, “we just assumed that’s the way all fathers are. He hasn’t changed at all.”

“All of our birthday presents were books,” Daman recalled. “For any of our birthdays he used to take us to bookshops like the New Book Depot and Galgotia at Connaught Place. We can pick any books, and he will pay—that was the gift. He never asked us to buy what he thought was important for us.”

In the past 40 years, Daman said she could only remember her father taking one vacation—a three-day family trip to Nainital, a hill station five hours from Delhi. Seven years into his tenure as prime minister, he still hasn’t taken one. Sanjaya Baru recalled that it was difficult to convince Singh to take even a single day to relax. “We were going to Goa one day, to inaugurate the Birla Institute of Technology in Panaji,” Baru said. “We were to fly there in the morning, inaugurate the Birla Institute, and fly out in the evening back to Delhi. I said to him, sir, it’s a weekend. Why don’t we stay Saturday night, spend Sunday morning on the beach and come back Sunday evening. You don’t miss a working day. You know what he asked? ‘But what do I do there?’ Only Manmohan Singh could ask what he could do in Goa.”

[ V ]

WITH EACH MAJOR CHAPTER in his life, Manmohan Singh has moved gradually and deliberately from the abstractions of academia to the calculations and compromises of politics. The first of these shifts brought him into the bureaucracy, where he served for nearly 20 years under six separate governments—rising rapidly through the ranks with a combination of talent, determination and political instinct. Singh’s reputation as an economist had brought him to the attention of the finance ministry as early as the late 1950s, when one of his Cambridge professors recommended Singh to then Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari. But at the time, his obligations to Panjab University prevented from taking up a government post.

Singh left the university in 1965 for a stint in New York at the United Nations trade body, UNCTAD, and then one at the Delhi School of Economics, which brought him into contact with powerful bureaucrats like PN Haksar and PN Dhar, two top secretaries to Indira Gandhi. In 1971, he took a lateral entry into the civil service and became an economic adviser to the ministry of foreign trade; within a year, he had been promoted to chief economic adviser in the finance ministry, where he earned his first small measure of public acclaim by taming runaway inflation. His ascent continued with positions as finance secretary, member secretary of the Planning Commission, RBI governor and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

The prime minister’s detractors have mounted various attacks on his tenure in the bureaucracy, ranging from the simple accusation that he helped implement counterproductive economic policies to the more damning and less subtantiated insinuation that he was (and therefore still is) an ardent socialist whose rise reflected favouritism rather than merit. But in an era when doctorates in economics from Oxford weren’t exactly queuing up to serve the Government of India, Singh was unquestionably among the best-qualified technocrats on hand, and he quickly earned a reputation for delivering results—without stepping over the line to challenge his superiors. His capacity to adapt to shifting political winds was nicely captured by TheTimes of India in a 1991 editorial: “Manmohan Singh was perfectly happy with the garibi hatao phase of Mrs Gandhi, then with the Emergency, then with the Janata Party, then with the return of Mrs Gandhi. He was accessible to Chandrasekhar as an adviser with Cabinet rank. He’s accessible to everyone. That’s a miracle.”

Singh navigated these turbulent years under the tutelage of a series of mentors, beginning with PN Haksar, then the influential private secretary to Indira Gandhi, who is said to have helped Singh shift from the trade to the finance ministry. After Haksar turned against Gandhi’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies in the run-up to the Emergency, Singh became close with PN Dhar, who had succeeded Haksar as Gandhi’s principal secretary, and RK Dhawan, an intimate of Sanjay Gandhi. When Indira was ejected and the Janata Party came to power, Singh worked closely with HM Patel, whose position was almost diametrically opposed to that of Dhawan, his previous mentor.

It would be too simple to conclude, on the basis of Singh’s capacity to survive such turnabouts, that his ambition had already shifted from economics to politics; that turn was still more than a decade away. At the time, there were merely intimations of his future identity—as an economist among the politicians and a politician among the economists.

It is similarly difficult to draw firm conclusions about Singh’s vaunted conversion to the free market after two decades spent helping to administer controls over the Indian economy. When the question of this apparent contradiction was first raised in June 1991, at Singh’s first press conference as finance minister, his response was unguarded: “I agree that I had played a role in getting the economy into a mess, and now I want to play a role in getting the economy out of the mess.” A few weeks later, shortly before presenting his first budget, he presented a more assertive answer to the very same question: “What I am saying now is what I have been saying since I came into the government. It is true that I have lived within the system and that I have not been able to change the system’s thinking earlier.”

The record is complicated further by an episode from Singh’s tenure as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission: Rajiv Gandhi had come into office backed by an enormous parliamentary majority after his mother’s assassination, full of energy and eager to transform India overnight. At a meeting in early 1985, Singh presented the new prime minister with a draft of the Seventh Five-Year Plan, and Rajiv made no effort to hide his disapproval. “Rajiv lost his cool,” said Natwar Singh, who was then a minister of state. “He said it was rubbish.” CG Somiah, who served with Singh as secretary in the Planning Commission, recalled in his autobiography that Gandhi “wanted us to plan for the construction of autobahns, airfields, speedy trains, shopping malls and entertainment centres of excellence, big housing complexes, modern hospitals and healthcare centres. We were shocked into silence.”

According to Somiah, Singh called an internal meeting of the Planning Commission, whose members agreed that Rajiv had an “urban-centric” orientation without proper regard for the vast population of poor villagers. After Singh “deliberated at length on the negative economic indicators prevalent in the country” at the next meeting with Rajiv, Somiah writes that the prime minister “made some hurtful and derogatory remarks”; a few days later, he called Singh and his planners “a bunch of jokers” in a meeting with journalists.

Six years later, Singh would be the one implementing a radical break with the planned economy, but back in the mid-1980s, he was still “living within the system”, as he later put it, and he unhappily decided to offer up his resignation in the face of Rajiv’s public mockery. He was persuaded by Somiah to stay on, but left Delhi with pleasure two years later for a job in Geneva as the secretary of the South Commission, an outgrowth of the nonaligned movement whose mission was “to plan an alternative development strategy for the countries of the South, drawing from their unique conditions of poverty, poor resources and unfair trade relations with the countries in the North”. The commission’s final report, published in 1990, had positive words for trade liberalisation and economic cooperation among developing countries, but its dominant tone was one of harsh criticism for the inequalities of the global economic system and the international lending agencies with whom Singh would soon be negotiating.

Within the Congress party, which presided over liberalisation and has since sought to corner the credit, there is still lingering unease over India’s tryst with capitalism—regarded by some as a deviation from Nehruvian socialism, not to mention a losing card with rural voters. Singh’s struggles over economic policy since 1991, therefore, have often pitted him against his own party.

In 1998, after the BJP had come to power and Sonia Gandhi had assumed the Congress presidency, the party’s heavyweights gathered at the Madhya Pradesh hill station of Pachmarhi for a “brainstorming session” intended to put the stumbling party back on the road to victory. Singh, who was the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, chaired the subcommittee on economic affairs. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who would later serve in Singh’s cabinet, was then the party’s chief draughtsman, typing up pages of the policy resolutions. “One page on economic vision came to me with the word ‘planned’ cut out and the word ‘balanced’ written in the margins,” Aiyar told me. “I thought the phrase ‘planned development’ had been with the Congress party from the Karachi Conference of 1931, so in all innocence, I put ‘planned and balanced economy’.”

When Aiyar returned the draft, he said, “Manmohan Singh was very, very angry. He asked, ‘I cut out the word planned. Why did you put it back in?’ I protested that the word planned had been used since the Karachi Conference.” But Singh would not relent. Natwar Singh, another working committee member, came over to intervene, tugging at Aiyar’s kurta and telling him, “Chhod do” (Leave it). Aiyar yielded to the seniors. “If you say chhodo, chhodo,” he recalled. “I went back and cut out the word.”

[ VI ]

AFTER SINGH ENTERED the upper echelons of the Congress in the late 1990s, the party gave him a ticket to contest a Lok Sabha election in 1999 from South Delhi—a posh constituency of middle-class voters who had reaped great benefits from the liberalised economy. His challenger was an unseemly state-level BJP leader, VK Malhotra. “It was meant to be a cakewalk for Doctor Sahib, a very sure seat for the Congress,” said Harcharan Singh Josh, a local party leader who served as Singh’s campaign manager. “In the previous year’s state election, ten out of the fourteen assembly seats were won by the Congress MLAs. The Muslim and Sikh populations came to more than fifty percent of the Constituency. And everyone was buying the foreign brands in the South-Ex market, brought to India by Doctor Sahib. Malhotra had jhero chance.”

Singh reaches out to voters in 1999 during his ill-fated Lok Sabha campaign in South Delhi. KAPOOR BALDEV / SYGMA / CORBIS

But there were problems from the start. Singh was still an outsider in the party, a talented bureaucrat who had been swept into politics after his successes in the finance ministry, with neither aptitude nor appetite for the dark arts of campaigning. Sonia Gandhi had personally given Singh the ticket, but that hardly guaranteed him the support of the party’s cadres.

“The AICC [All India Congress Committee] gave us `2 million, more than they paid for other constituencies,” Josh said. “But that wasn’t sufficient to keep the MLAs, municipal councillors and the party workers active. He did not know anything about these intrigues—he was having the impression that since the Congress party has given him the ticket, the MLAs and municipal councillors will all work together.”

“For the first ten days,” Josh said, “we had no funds, and industrialists came from as far as Calcutta, calling to ask for appointments to hand over election contributions. But he refused to meet them.”

“One day I told him, ‘Doctor Sahib, we’re losing the election. We have no money,’” Josh said. “Everyone [in the party] said they’ll give money,” Singh replied, but Josh regretfully informed him that further inquiries had demonstrated the emptiness of these promises. Josh told Singh the campaign needed at least `10 million. “Councillor kahta hai mujhe paisa do. [Councillors are asking for money.] Kya karein? Minimum do lakh tho mangte hain na? [What can we do? They ask for `200,000 minimum, right?] Office kholna hai, jo log ayenge, unko chai pilana hai, car chahiye to go this way, to go that way, flags also, banners. So all these things require money,” Josh said.

“But he was a different man. He had never dealt with money. So ultimately, one day, I sat with Doctor Sahib, his wife and his daughter Daman. He said, ‘I will not meet anyone.’ I said, Doctor Sahib, we’ll lose the election—money bina, paise ke bina—we’ll lose without money.”

According to his campaign in-charge, Manmohan Singh, who had at first “stood like a rock”, finally yielded to the ethically dubious practices of Indian electioneering. “It was decided that people would come to Doctor Sahib—sir, kuch seva bataiiye mujhe, is there any way for me to be of service? So Doctor Sahib used to say, I want only your good wishes. Nothing else. Then the money will be delivered to Madame [Gursharan] in the next room.” (After the election, Josh said, Singh passed the unused funds—about `700,000—to the AICC.)

“The entire corporate sector was with him,” Singh’s rival VK Malhotra told me. “They got appeals issued by Khushwant Singh, Javed Akhtar; the entire media supported him—The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Star TV.” But elections are not won on the strength of elite opinion, and Singh lacked the ability to reach out to voters or mobilise the Congress ranks. “Several senior party men worked against Doctor Sahib, and the councillors who had affiliations with those senior leaders did not work for Doctor Sahib,” Josh said.

Singh lost by almost 30,000 votes, shocking his supporters and admirers and cementing his image as a man ill-suited to politics, a “weak politician” who would rather sit comfortably in the unelected upper house than face the judgement of voters. When various party figures came back to Singh in 2004, promising to put him in a safe seat and ensure his election, the humiliation of 1999 still loomed large, and he refused all offers.

The defeat, recalled his daughter Daman Singh, was “very hard” on her father. “He felt very alone after that,” she said. “It was a huge blow, sort of like a dhakka for the whole family.”

“He was very subdued and depressed” after the election, the former Union Cabinet minister told me. “It took him almost a year to really come to terms with it. His graph had always been upward, and suddenly it went down—he couldn’t take it. The tragedy was that the Congressmen made sure that he lost it. They said, ‘Who is this chap who has come from outside?’”

After his loss in 1999, Singh retained his seat in the Rajya Sabha, and continued to draw closer to Sonia Gandhi, joining her inner circle of trusted advisers—a position for which his apparent lack of political ambition was likely a considerable asset. When the members of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) gathered to select their leader on Saturday, 15 May 2004—two days after the surprise Congress general election victory—it was Manmohan Singh who presided over the election and announced the unanimous result in favour of Sonia Gandhi. Singh was also present the following day when she called a small informal meeting of party leaders—including Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and Ahmed Patel—to reveal that she would decline the opportunity to be PM. When Gandhi went to see President Abdul Kalam on Monday to explain that she would not head the government, she brought Manmohan Singh along. At a CPP meeting later that afternoon, Gandhi formally announced her decision, tears welling up in her eyes, to a chorus of shouts and wails from the assembled parliamentarians. The session adjourned without mention of a replacement. But while top party leaders were speculating about the identity of their next prime minister—and a handful of ambitious Congressmen were eyeing the job—Gandhi was at home writing a resolution to elect Manmohan Singh, which was circulated to every Congress MP that night. By the time the parliamentary party met for a third time the next day, Singh’s election was a mere formality.

Singh accepts the letter of invitation from President Abdul Kalam on 19 May 2004 to become the country’s 14th prime minister. PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / HO / AP PHOTO

It’s not hard to see what led Sonia to select Manmohan from half-a-dozen more seasoned and more powerful Congressmen: his loyalty, integrity and his international reputation as the architect of 1991.

“He didn’t put money into his account. He followed very simple personal habits. And his children didn’t run amok. All this helped him slowly create an image of respectability in politics,” a senior secretary who worked closely with Singh in the finance ministry said.

Singh’s house was soon overrun with well-wishers. “I remember they put a tent at the back, an area for refreshments and cold drinks in the garden under a big sort of shamiana,” Daman Singh said. “It took some time to get organised, because obviously nobody was expecting something like this.”

The accidental finance minister had become the accidental PM, thrust into the prime ministership by Gandhi’s surprise gift—circumstances that only seemed to confirm Singh’s reputation as the quiet man of Indian politics, too decent and modest to grasp for the throne himself. But Singh’s ambition and determination have always been underestimated, a misperception he has rarely tried to correct.

“He was principally an outsider—he didn’t expect to become the prime minister,” said the former Union Cabinet minister. “I am not saying that he is totally lacking in ambition—in this game, nobody is not ambitious. But he was very subtle about it.”

In a 1996 interview, Singh had been asked point-blank about his aspirations for the top job, and his response was uncharacteristically blunt: “Who doesn’t want to be prime minister?”

In fact, Singh was secretly approached two years later, in 1998, with a proposition to put him forward as a prime ministerial candidate. The Congress was fractured at that point in time, and the era of unstable coalitions had begun. A senior Congress leader who had joined Mamata Banerjee’s breakaway Trinamool Congress told me that he and Banerjee had hatched a plan early in 1998 to approach Singh—who was then unhappy in the Congress—and offer him a safe seat in North West Calcutta. They were confident that the upcoming snap elections would deliver a repeat of 1996, with no party as a decisive winner, and believed they could cobble together a coalition with Manmohan Singh as the prime minister.

“I went to his Safdarjung Road residence and put this proposition to him, to join the Trinamool Congress,” the senior leader told me. “I said, I’m authorised by Mamata Banerjee to offer you a ticket from North West Calcutta, the constituency of the aristocratic Bengalis—the Bhadralok. There is no way anyone could beat you there, and after the elections the prime ministership will be offered to you on a platter.”

“Do you know what Manmohan Singh said?” the leader continued. “He said, ‘This country will not accept a Sikh as the Prime Minister.’”

[ VII ]

THAT MANMOHAN SINGH became India’s first Sikh prime minister at the head of the party which led the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was only the first of several ironies in his appointment. After vanquishing the BJP in a campaign that revolved around the saffron party’s “India Shining” slogan by appealing to the hundreds of millions left behind by liberalisation, the Congress selected the man most associated with that liberalisation as its standard-bearer. Five years later, when Singh became the first prime minister since Nehru to win reelection after completing a full term, the scales were tipped by two pro-poor policies associated with Sonia Gandhi rather than Singh—the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which provided low-wage labour to 20 million households, and the farm loan waiver, which forgave `60 billion in debt.

The shadow of Sonia Gandhi has led some to caricature Singh as a puppet prime minister, which plays well in cartoons but has little resemblance to reality. Indeed, in what may be remembered as the two most significant events of his tenure—the apex of the nuclear deal and the nadir of the 2G scam—it was Singh’s own instincts that were decisive. At no other moments has the inscrutable PM revealed so much of himself: in the first case, the stubbornness and strength of his convictions; in the second, the selective nature of those convictions.

The nuclear saga began in 2005, when Singh and George W Bush announced their intention to sign a civilian nuclear agreement. At the time, the Left parties offering outside support to Singh’s coalition government voiced their objection, but they were preoccupied with economic matters like blocking further public sector disinvestment. By 2007, Bush had delivered on his half of the deal, pushing two bills through the US Congress, and a formal agreement negotiated by Pranab Mukherjee and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was released to the public in early August.

Manmohan Singh and George W Bush at the White House in July 2005, when the Indo-US nuclear deal was formally announced. RAVEENDRAN / AFP PHOTO

The Left turned up the heat in response, but Singh fired a warning shot. When he saw the Telegraph’s Delhi editor, Manini Chatterjee, at a public meeting, he dangled the prospect of an exceedingly rare exclusive interview. “He said, ‘Manini, it’s been a while since I’ve talked to you. Why don’t you come over to the office?’” Chatterjee recalled. Singh kept the conversation focused entirely on the nuclear deal, and issued a challenge to the communists in their hometown paper: “It is an honourable deal, the cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it.... If they want to withdraw support, so be it.”

But the Left parties soon demonstrated their willingness to take Singh up on his offer: Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), declared the Left would “not support a government which surrenders India’s national interest to the Americans. The ruling party will have to choose between the deal and its government’s stability.” The Congress party’s survival instinct kicked in: nobody was in the mood for an early election, including the leaders of the coalition’s three largest partners—Sharad Pawar, Karunanidhi and Lalu Prasad Yadav—who contacted Sonia Gandhi and urged her to halt Singh’s nuclear ambitions. By October, Singh was on the back foot, announcing at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit that failure to carry the deal through “is not the end of life”. Later that day, at the same event, Gandhi said, “The Left’s opposition to the nuclear deal was not unreasonable… the party is not in favour of early elections.”

The nuclear pact seemed to be dead, but the government needed to engineer an elegant way out. The US Congress had already amended two laws to permit nuclear cooperation with India, and Washington had sent word to the 45 countries in the Nuclear Suppliers Group that the deal would soon be underway. Singh felt that backing out now would be a personal humiliation and a national embarrassment—so the Congress and the Left devised a secret strategy for Singh to save face internationally.

On 22 October, at an informal meeting of the UPA-Left Committee, which had been established in an attempt to broker a compromise on the nuclear agreement, the government’s chief negotiator, Pranab Mukherjee, offered terms of surrender. “Give us an honourable exit, and we’ll not go ahead with the deal,” he said, according to a member of the committee.

Mukherjee and Defence Minister AK Antony proposed a covert deal to the Communist leaders Prakash Karat and AB Bardhan: the Congress promised to abandon the nuclear pact, but the Left would allow the government to take it forward to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and conduct a few rounds of negotiations, at which point India would cite one clause or another proposed by the IAEA as a pretense to withdraw from the deal without offending the US. The Left leaders agreed, under the condition that the nuclear deal come before Parliament before any approach to the IAEA.

AB Bardhan (far left) and Prakash Karat (second from right) declare their break with the Congress-led coalition in July 2008. PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP PHOTO

A few weeks later, on 10 November, a working lunch meeting was held at the prime minister’s residence to formalise the secret arrangement. The only participants were Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Mukherjee, Karat and Bardhan, and the five agreed on a clear roadmap to give the nuclear deal a dignified burial.

“Manmohan Singh just sat there, sulking,” the committee member said. “He didn’t say a word.” Singh’s nuclear deal had been sabotaged by the Left’s anti-American dogma and his own party’s lack of resolve. But he was already hatching a few plans of his own.

Two days later, he paid a private visit to his predecessor, AB Vajpayee, for an hour-long discussion on the nuclear deal. It was Vajpayee, after all, who had initiated India’s close relationship with George W Bush, and Singh hoped he might help rescue the deal. But the very next day, LK Advani, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, spilled the beans in an effort to embarrass Singh: Advani ridiculed the government’s “opportunism”. “Now, they have reached out to talk when they are at the verge of falling,” he told reporters. “It is too late now.”

Singh as finance minister in his office in 1995. DELHI PRESS IMAGES

In the meantime, Parliament discussed the nuclear pact, the government approached the IAEA and the Left did not threaten the government, just as they had promised. For the next several months, while negotiations with the IAEA were underway, the Left remained quiet, and Singh knew he had to act quickly to retain any hope of saving the deal.

According to accounts provided by multiple sources—top leaders in two allied parties and one CWC member—after the BJP refused to lend support, it was Manmohan Singh, and not the Congress party, who made the first approach to Samajwadi Party (SP) leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. After losing power in Uttar Pradesh, the SP bosses were fighting for survival against a spate of cases filed by their victorious opponent, Mayawati, and a disproportionate assets probe from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI); Sonia Gandhi had frozen out the SP leaders ever since Yadav ridiculed her during the 2004 campaign. “Everyone in the inside knew it was Manmohan Singh who opened the first channel of conversation with Samajwadi Party,” one of the allied party leaders said. “The Congress leaders didn’t even know this at that point. They only intervened later.”

Once the talks with the SP were under way, Singh pressed his advantage with Sonia Gandhi. She knew she had to keep her word to the Left or watch her government fall, but Singh stood his ground. “Privately, he threatened to resign,” a former official in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) told me. The allied party leader put it less kindly: “He blackmailed her—he said he didn’t want to continue unless she allowed the deal to go through.” Singh convinced Gandhi that the government could obtain the required support, “so Sonia backed out and decided to go with the Samajwadi Party,” the former official said.

Singh with Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao (right) in 1994, three years after he had appointed Singh as finance minister. SANJAY SHARMA / HT PHOTO

“Don’t forget, he learned realpolitik from Narasimha Rao, who was a clever old goat and a master craftsman,” said Sanjaya Baru. “I keep telling people, never underestimate Manmohan Singh.”

As documented in the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, a round of intense bargaining between Congress and Samajwadi leaders soon ensued. The Left parties were outraged, and held a press conference on 8 July to withdraw support for the government. But it was too late. Singh initiated a vote of confidence in Parliament before anyone in the opposition could move a no-confidence motion. Two weeks later, the government prevailed by three votes in the Lok Sabha, amid widespread allegations that votes had been bought to ensure the razor-thin victory—charges that recently landed Amar Singh in jail.

Addressing the media that night, Singh beamed with confidence and declared that the vote “gives a clear message to the world that India’s head and heart are sound and India is prepared to take its rightful place in the comity of nations”. For the moment, the tarnish of the cash-for-votes allegations was easily forgotten, and the media sang hymns of praise to the “warrior king” who had shed his timidity at long last.

But the former senior secretary who worked with Singh at the finance ministry told me the PM’s unexpected guile came as no surprise. “Some of us—economists who’ve known him for a very long time—like to say that Manmohan Singh is an overestimated economist and an underestimated politician,” he said.

“The nuclear deal proved that where Manmohan Singh had a political conviction—when he wanted something done in a particular manner—he would go all the way,” the leader of a Congress ally said. The nuclear showdown demonstrated that Singh could defy Sonia Gandhi; the details revealed above indicate his ability to play first-class power politics. But this additional evidence of Singh’s steely determination in 2008 raises another troubling question: How did he allow the 2G scam to proceed under his watch?

[ VIII ]

THE FRAUDULENT ALLOCATION of cellular spectrum licences in 2008—which sold off scarce public resources at prices well below market value in an irregular and corrupt process that favoured specific telecom companies—appears to be the largest scandal in the history of India. According to the government’s own accounting firm, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the decision to allocate spectrum at 2001 rather than 2008 prices—in spite of the exponential growth in cellphone users over the same interval, from 40 million to 350 million—caused a loss to the exchequer estimated at `1.76 trillion.

According to the CBI, which is prosecuting the case, the figure is about `300 billion. But if you inquire with the current minister of communications and information technology—whose predecessor is in jail for his role in the scam—the total losses were “zero”.

Even if you tried to design a scandal intended to tear a government’s credibility to shreds, you would have a hard time improving on the 2G scam. The sums were mind-bogglingly astronomical; the guilty parties were unabashedly venal and unquestionably corrupt; and the government’s ineffectual reaction to the defrauding of the exchequer—which had been carried out almost in plain sight—seemed to confirm the worst allegations of its critics.

In the two years since the initial reports of the 2G scam emerged, Manmohan Singh’s government has floundered in its public response at almost every juncture and in almost every possible way. In the press, spokesmen dished out a haphazard mix of unconvincing and contradictory defences; in the cabinet, months passed before the corrupt ministers were forced to resign; and in the Parliament, the government stonewalled for three months against the opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) enquiry—wasting an entire session—only to concede to the very same demand after two more months.

But the government’s inept management of the aftermath has only obscured a more fundamental failure—to stop the scam before it started. On the basis of the available evidence, it is clear that Manmohan Singh was aware of the prospective revenue loss. He knew that something fishy was underway, and studying his interventions during the crucial period between 2006 and 2008 reveals at least three instances when he could have decisively changed the course of the spectrum allocation process and yet chose not to do so. In all three cases, Singh’s intuitions were correct, but on each occasion his reservations were dismissed by one or more of his ministers, and rather than enforce his authority he backed down.

The first of these episodes took place in 2006, when Singh constituted a six-member Group of Ministers to supervise the allocation of spectrum held by the government, in part to avoid leaving the decision of fixing the prices in the hands of a single minister. But when Dayanidhi Maran, who was then telecommunications minister, protested that the pricing of spectrum should be left solely to his ministry—citing a policy decision taken under the previous BJP government—Singh conceded without a fight.

Escorted by CBI offcials following arrest for his role in the 2G scam, former telecom minister A Raja heads to a Delhi court on 17 February 2011. PARVEEN NEGI / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

By the time of Singh’s second intervention, A Raja had taken over from Maran at the telecom ministry and continued to exploit the policy set by his predecessor. The Prime Minister’s Office had received several complaints from telecom companies alleging favouritism and kickbacks in the sale of spectrum, and on 2 November 2007, Singh wrote a letter to Raja raising five concerns about the ongoing allocation of 2G licences. The most significant of these was the prime minister’s suggestion that prices should be increased or determined by auction. Raja replied on the same day with a wordy letter intended to deflect each of the PM’s concerns, cleverly arguing that it would be “unfair, discriminatory, arbitrary and capricious to auction the spectrum to new applicants” since that would deny them a “level playing field” with existing licence-holders.

Singh declined to press the matter, but in a speech at an international telecom trade conference the following month, he publicly voiced his preference for the auction of spectrum, noting that “governments across the globe have harnessed substantial revenue while allocating the spectrum.” Raja was unpersuaded, and sent another letter to the prime minister on 26 December defending his policies with a skillful appeal to Singh’s free-market inclinations. “My efforts in this sector,” Raja wrote, “are intended to give lower tariff to the consumer and to bring higher tele-density in the country.” Singh did not pursue the correspondence any further.

The third of Singh’s missed opportunities involved his senior Congress colleague P Chidambaram, who as finance minister had to approve the prices set by the telecommunications ministry. On 15 January 2008, Chidambaram indicated he shared Singh’s position in a letter which argued that “the price for spectrum should be based on its scarcity value and efficiency of usage. The most transparent method of allocating spectrum would be through auction.” But by 4 July 2008, Chidambaram had evidently changed his mind: in a meeting with the prime minister, Raja and Chidambaram informed Singh they had reached an agreement on spectrum charges that included neither an auction nor an increase in fees from the 2001 rates still in use. Once again, Singh deferred to the decisions of others in spite of his own stated preferences, a choice he later defended by suggesting he felt that he did not have the authority to “insist” on an auction.

These three episodes present the prime minister as a man who has the decency and intelligence to recognise that something is amiss but who lacks the conviction to fix it—someone who doesn’t exactly look the other way in the face of wrongdoing, and yet gives up all too easily when his initial efforts to confront it fall flat. “He is not a stern person,” the former Union Cabinet minister told me. “Temperamentally, he’s such a nice person. I think it hurts him to take drastic action and see people suffer.”

A fourth incident completes the picture in a most unflattering way: after Singh had abandoned his perfunctory efforts to intervene with Raja, another file from the telecom department on spectrum allocation came to his office on 23 January 2008. On the document, which was uncovered by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee earlier this year, a note written by Singh’s private secretary suggested his desire to wash his hands of the matter; it said the PM “Does not want a formal communication and wants PMO to be at arms length.” (In July, the PMO took the unusual step of issuing a press release to challenge what it called “unwarranted inferences” about the note.)

“Manmohan Singh is an honest man in a pecuniary sense, but not in the high political-moral sense, as someone who wants to correct wrongs in governance by taking on dishonest people or practices. That’s not him,” said the former senior secretary, who worked with Singh in the finance ministry and has known him for more than four decades. “Look at his responses on 2G—he says ‘I never knew’ or ‘No one told me.’ That fits a pattern, having seen him closely in the government.”

In the assortment of excuses and rationalisations deployed by the prime minister and other senior cabinet members since the revelation of the scam, one finds little to refute the former secretary’s judgement. After Raja was finally compelled to resign in the wake of the CAG report estimating the cost of the scam at `1.76 trillion, his replacement at the telecom ministry, Kapil Sibal, called a press conference where he attacked the auditor and asserted Raja’s actions had incurred “zero loss” in revenue. It was a widely mocked statement, but it also ironically and unintentionally lent weight to Raja’s own defence—that he had merely followed policy set by the previous government and that his superiors, including the prime minister and the finance minister, knew exactly what he was doing.

The debating points and legalistic justifications that issued forth from the cabinet failed to resonate with an increasingly angry public, but they accurately reflected the sensibility of the prime minister and his core team of advisers on the matter, which included Sibal, Chidambaram and Singh’s close family friend, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, an Oxford-trained economist who worked at the World Bank and IMF and now serves as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

Singh with Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia at a meeting of the G20 heads of state. ANDREW HARRER / POOL / CORBIS

It’s easy to forget today—after the investigations and arrests, the opposition protests and the hunger strikes against corruption—that for months top figures in Singh’s cabinet essentially argued that the scam was not a scam at all. Ahluwalia went so far as to defend Raja after the scandal broke, and reportedly argued that the dramatically underpriced 2G licences were “a spectrum subsidy” akin to food subsidies. Even after the release of the CAG report, with its massive loss estimate, Ahluwalia defended Raja’s policies in a television interview and attacked the auditor: “We were not trying for revenue maximisation... it has been the consistent policy of the government not to treat revenue maximisation as its objective,” he argued—suggesting, in other words, that distributing spectrum at discount prices to private firms (several of whom are among the largest corporates in India) was not an accident: it was the policy. Raja abused the policy on behalf of his benefactors, to be sure. But the prime minister and his most senior cabinet colleagues held the door open for him to do so, leaving the distinct impression that they were not merely helpless to crack down on corruption, but indifferent to its causes and origins.

[ IX ]

IN MID-SEPTEMBER, I met with two very senior former officials who had served in the current government and are intimately familiar with the 2G case. Although neither man accused the prime minister of wrongdoing, both suggested that he may still come under legal pressure, and could be summoned to court as a witness or even to face prosecution. “I hope it doesn’t happen,” the first official told me. “But the court can actually even prosecute the PM for violation of transaction of business rules.”

“The PM is in bad shape, and unless there’s a very credible lawyer who can take care of the 2G case, the government will be in trouble,” the second official said when I met him on 17 September. “The PM is very concerned about himself and Chidambaram—only today morning both of them had a meeting to discuss 2G.” The home minister is facing petitions against him in both the Supreme Court and a CBI court, arguing he should be prosecuted over his agreement with Raja on spectrum prices, and has already indicated in private his willingness to step down if either court acts against him. “Chidambaram will go,” the second official said. “He has said to me, ‘If anything happens, I’m going.’”

It seems certain that the 2G scam will continue to haunt the government until the end of its term. A more significant question for Manmohan Singh is whether it will come to colour future considerations of his prime ministership and even his legacy. His reputation for honesty may remain intact, but the course of this particular scandal—and a host of others that have transpired under his watch—suggests that honesty alone is an insufficient defence in crises that demand more from leaders than personal decency. It has been Manmohan Singh’s misfortune to run the country at a moment of proliferating corruption, which has had the unfortunate effect of highlighting his own inability or disinclination to confront it.

It may be instructive to return briefly to the first scandal of Manmohan Singh’s political life: one considerably less significant than the 2G scam, but perhaps indicative of a troubling tendency that now threatens to overshadow the rest of his impressive career.

In April 1992, barely 10 months into his tenure as finance minister, the booming Bombay Stock Exchange had what was then its biggest-ever crash, falling 13 percent in a single day. The collapse had been caused by a stockbroker named Harshad Mehta who had colluded with senior officials in public sector banks—which come under the control of the finance ministry—to siphon funds from the banks into the stock market, which crashed when the fraud was revealed. According to an official in PV Narasimha Rao’s PMO, when internal intelligence reports about the fraud first reached the finance ministry in March 1992, Singh anxiously called an emergency meeting with cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra, finance secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia and economic adviser Ashok Desai to discuss the situation.

The former PMO official recalled that Singh’s initial response had been a decidedly defensive one. “It was a systemic failure,” Singh proposed. “One thing led to another.” When one of them suggested to Singh that nobody would buy this argument, and that Mehta should be investigated and forced to offload his shares, Singh demurred. “Then there will be a lot of noise,” he said. “People will write about it, everyone will know.” A few weeks later, news of the scam leaked out anyway. An investigation began and a Joint Parliamentary Committee was formed in August 1992 to probe the scandal.

Then as now, not even Singh’s opponents alleged any impropriety on his part, but the finance ministry faced severe criticism for its failure to detect the scam and its sluggish pursuit of the perpetrators. In another echo of his present troubles, Singh’s first reactions left the impression he was untroubled by the scandal; under attack from the opposition in the Parliament, he famously quipped that he did not “lose sleep simply because the stock market goes up one day and falls next day”.

Singh would be cleared of responsibility in the JPC’s final report, but the committee took note of his remarks and criticised his apparent indifference: “It is good to have a finance minister who does not lose his sleep but one would wish that when such cataclysmic changes take place all around, some alarm would ring to disturb his slumber.”

Those cataclysmic changes, which Manmohan Singh helped to unleash, are now two decades old. At some point this year, the size of the Indian economy is expected to surpass $2 trillion, growing at the second-fastest rate in the world; in the past decade per capita income has tripled, and India now boasts the world’s fourth largest group of billionaires. But with this explosive growth have come dramatic increases in income inequality and an age of endemic corruption—much of which emanates from the shadowy crossroads where the state and capital meet.

A 2009 study sponsored by the Asian Development Bank warned of the “risk that India will evolve towards a condition of oligarchic capitalism” unless steps are taken to challenge the “links of power between politicians, the state and the private sector”. In a similar vein, the influential political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, hardly a radical leftist, suggested in a column earlier this year that “the recent scandals have put private capital beyond the pale of acceptability”:

From being generators of wealth, they are now being branded as appropriators of public wealth. This is true not just of upstart miners like the Bellary brothers. The uncomfortable fact is that this perception is now shadowing even the exceptional Tatas, and the global powerhouse Reliance. The perception is widespread and real and will need to be addressed directly.

Manmohan Singh cannot bear sole responsibility for all that came in the wake of liberalisation, but as the prime minister he has too often appeared unprepared to reckon with the conflict that remains unresolved two decades later, over how to negotiate the proper balance between the state and the market.

The leader of a party allied with the Congress described to me a meeting with Manmohan Singh in December 2005, two months after the release of the UN report investigating abuses in the Iraq Oil-for-Food programme. The report had implicated Natwar Singh, then the minister of external affairs, and he was forced to resign as a result, but it had also named Reliance Petroleum Limited as a beneficiary in the oil-for-food scam. The party leader said he had raised the issue with the prime minister, saying, “Sir, the report mentions not just Natwar, it also prominently mentions Reliance. Why are you not taking any action against Reliance?”

“With a sigh,” the party leader recounted, “Manmohan Singh said to us, ‘After all, what can I do? It is India’s largest corporate.’”

In the course of the last 20 years, Manmohan Singh has been at the centre of two major public debates, both of considerable historical significance: first, over the shift from a socialist planned economy to a liberalised free market, and second, over the turn away from a non-aligned foreign policy and toward stronger ties with the United States. In the waning years of his political career, he now seems likely to occupy a central role—if perhaps a symbolic one—in a third era-defining debate, over corruption and its causes and cures.

Manmohan Singh himself does not symbolise corruption in the way that he has become an emblem of liberalisation and Americanisation, and even if many call his government the “most corrupt” India has ever seen, that record may yet be broken. But the debate over corruption is not really about scandals and bribes, or about the devious schemes of amoral persons inside and outside of government: it is about the increasingly common fear that the system itself is broken, and about the inaction and apathy of those who should be positioned to lead in its repair.

In the end, the fate of Manmohan Singh’s legacy is out of his hands. If the intractable structural crises troubling India somehow get resolved, then his place in history will be far larger than a footnote. But if the centre cannot hold, then Manmohan Singh will be seen as the man who let loose a storm but failed to bring it under control—who sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.