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Goodbye Dr Singh

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” wrote Sir Winston Churchill.

Many decades later, and many continents away, an Indian Prime Minster, bitter and beaten said weakly, “History will be kinder to me than the contemporary media.”

Dr Manmohan Singh, the thirteenth Prime Minister of India hangs up his boots two weeks from now, not having built a legacy of growth and development that he had wanted to.

A tragic figure, lonely and forsaken by the party that propped him up for ten years but did not in the end defend his tenure.

It is tragic to see Dr Singh leave in this manner after ten long years on the saddle, a sad and humiliated statesman. Pic/Getty images
It is tragic to see Dr Singh leave in this manner after ten long years on the saddle, a sad and humiliated statesman. Pic/Getty images

In two weeks time, Dr Singh will drive out of the Prime Minister’s residence 7 Race Course Road in the leafy neighbourhood in Central Delhi to live in quiet solitude; pretty much what he has been doing in the past few months even as his colleagues have been campaigning vigorously.

He half-heartedly addressed a few rallies, hardly interacted with party workers and completely kept away from voters. He has less to say now than he ever did in the past two decades. Dr Singh has been one of the poorest communicators among the 14 Prime Ministers we have had.

Morarji Desai was cussed, Narasimha Rao was sharp and stingy with words, and Deve Gowda mumbled his ten months as prime minister. But the crown of silent servitude would certainly have to be handed to Dr Singh.

Cambridge, Oxford educated, Professor at Delhi School of Economics, worked at the UNCTAD, finance minister, prime minister, self-made man, humble origins, squeaky clean personal life, decent and incorrupt reputation, yet the country wanted him out at the end of ten years for being unbearably weak and silent.

In 2009 when his first term as prime minister was about to end, Dr Singh was in London to attend the EU summit. He met with President Obama and answering a question by an Indian reporter at the press interaction thereafter, Obama began by saying, “the Prime Minister is a wonderful man”.

Before the US President could complete his sentence, the young Simrat of the Times of India chirped, “Thank you”. The entire room burst into laughter and the Indian media sitting in the back rows — because we had just covered the Indian Prime Minister’s press conference and were late for Obama’s press meet cringed in embarrassment.

President Obama then teasingly asked her, “Did you have anything to do with it?”, to which she replied, “We are very proud of him.” It was a good come back and she was really echoing what most of us in the Indian press corps felt back then.

Before Dr Singh’s time, Indian media was always allotted the corner desk at international conferences. We did not get invites for any of the major press conferences at ASEAN, EU summits, UN and the likes. But then it began to change. A lot of it was due to India being the sexy story and then we had a prime minister who was widely respected by the heads of government.

Wherever he went, prime ministers and presidents would seek out the meek and quiet man in the corner of the room. Laughed at and reviled back home, Dr Manmohan Singh was admired and given the pride of place at summits.

If you were an ‘embedded journalist’ like I was on many of these assignments with the prime minister, you would wonder why could the journalists ‘back home’ not figure out that it was alright to have a non-assertive PM, when we were winning the mind-game internationally. The hyphenation with Pakistan was gone, India was happening.

But the truth is that India was ‘unhappening’ rapidly. Dr Singh was losing the perception battle in the country and he had no team in place to bail him out of the several crises that UPA-2 faced. How can a PM not pick his team? It is beyond one’s comprehension how he blindly compromised on everything.

The presumption that if the economy was on track, rest will follow probably led to his misstep. A prime minister cannot function with just his personal integrity as his armour. I wonder if he realises it now.

It is tragic to see Dr Singh leave in this manner after ten long years on the saddle, a sad and humiliated statesman. One can’t help but wonder whether he is right, perhaps history will judge him kindly. Just as it has happened with PV Narasimha Rao, his mentor.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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