The not-so-splendid isolation of Manmohan Singh

As we head closer to the assembly elections in five states and to the general elections next year, the figure who stands alone and abandoned is clearly the Prime Minister. The man who was feted abroad and who has been Prime Minister for nine years of the world’s largest democracy is fast fading into the shadows. And yet he seems neither bitter nor angry. Like his one-time boss, Narasimha Rao, the ninth Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh will also probably retire into solitude with his books and his family, in a government appointed bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Singh no more king? Congress has abandoned its longest serving non-Nehru-Gandhi prime minister, the only one after Nehru to have been re-elected after a full five-year term

Dr Singh has very few friends and that isn’t because he has cultivated a special group around him like the Gandhis or Vajpayees, who have a code of silence they adhere to. It is because Dr Singh is most comfortable with his books, his files, his strict routine and is a man of few words and fewer needs. It is probably for this reason that despite the several insults heaped on him, he has hardly ever retaliated. Sharp words rarely escape his mouth. All he has done is mouth a few Urdu couplets in his defence in Parliament. If he has a short fuse, neither his staff nor his family have seen much evidence of it. In the nine years that he has been in office, he has rarely shown bursts of emotion or compassion. His expressionless manner has drawn much scorn and mirth. But even that did not change him.

Nobody quite knows what the Prime Minister likes or doesn’t like. What have been his ups and downs in the past nine years? Journalists who travel on his prime ministerial visits have often asked him personal questions. He blushes with awkwardness and turns the answer to something about the country.

There are whispers in the corridors about how he played up the rivalry between Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram, his tussles with 10 Janpath, his difficulties with toeing the line that the Congress wants him to. If these were difficulties then, regrettably, he compromised. He did not fight to have his way.

The only exception was the nuclear deal with the US. Many of us wondered that if he had the guts to fight then, why not at other times. And there were plenty of times. Why did he bear the insults and retract all his decisions? Only he can answer. The lesser said about the people who work for him, the better.

On Saturday, the once-prime-minister-hopeful L K Advani said in Chhattisgarh, “I can say without hesitation that out of the 14 Prime Ministers India has had, the worst rule has been of Dr Manmohan Singh.” One understands that it is election season and Mr Advani has to prove that he is more loyal than even Amit Shah, but is Dr Singh’s tenure worse than the one in which he and his friends were thrown in prison during the Emergency? Or the one in which he was again arrested during his Rath Yatra? Or the one in which a Jain Hawala case was configured which saw him drop out of the prime ministerial race? You could argue that Mr Advani was talking about the larger picture but I doubt it.

The Prime minister was also in Chhattisgarh on Saturday but he did not address any large crowds. He spoke instead to listless party workers. Who would source large crowds for Dr Singh? Not the Congress party. It takes a lot to cart people, pay them, feed them, shepherd them into enclosures, tutor them to clap and say Jai Ho or Vande Mataram, arrange for the media to be present in huge numbers, provide wi-fi, and aerial shots of crowds. All this costs money and for a man who would not ask for it and who has no stake in the next elections and who can fetch no votes, why bother? The Grand Old Party has already abandoned its longest serving non-Nehru-Gandhi Prime Minister, the only Prime Minister after Nehru to have been re-elected on completion of a full five-year term.

When he quits office in a few months from now, Dr Singh will just be as isolated as he is now or has been in the past nine years. He is, though, so self-reliant that he will hardly notice that the doorbell isn’t ringing anymore. In a city of self-important people, Dr Singh is a Delhiite who has remained an
outsider all his life.

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

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