Manmohan Singh: A bookworm in the crossfire of a book war
“Strictly Personal: Manmohan and Gursharan” is a freshly published book by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter, Daman Singh. Its promise is avowedly modest — you can read an interview with the author here, and another brief introduction here, to learn a few details about what you can expect from it.
Focused on the human side of Manmohan Singh’s political career it builds on the strengths of the former PM at a time when he might just need this, to shape perceptions of his legacy to his advantage. Being a nice, smart and humble person is what is generally regarded to have been his strength, and the book may as well be a reminder of that.
The father of major liberal economic reforms during his time as Minister of Finance (1991-1996), and later premier (2004-2014), no matter how much he was attacked for his policies, Manmohan Singh has always been respected for his personal qualities which even opponents did not usually deny.
A case in point is Sanjaya Baru, media advisor to the former PM from 2004 to 2008, who, while otherwise criticizing rampant corruption during Manmohan Singh’s time, goes only so far as to argue:
“Dr Singh’s general attitude towards corruption in public life, which he adopted through his career in government, seemed to me to be that he would himself maintain the highest standards of probity in public life, but would not impose this on others … In practice, this meant that he turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of his ministers.”
Baru is nevertheless one of those former team members from Singh’s cabinet who have published books dealing with his tenure that have done some damage to his reputation. Baru’s book has the telling title of The Accidental Prime Minister (referring to Singh himself there).
Meanwhile, the memoirs of a former Minister of External Affairs, Natwar Singh (in office: 2004-2005; no relation to Manmohan Singh) are also out since the beginning of this month, and copies of both that book (‘One Life Is Not Enough’) and Baru’s are selling fast — in record numbers in Indian terms.
Based on what we know from the press accounts so far, both books paint a picture of Manmohan Singh’s government (2004-2014) as one where Sonia Gandhi and the Indian National Congress party were really pulling the strings. See samples of what Natwar Singh had to say here and here. He even says Manmohan Singh considered himself “a very lonely man” in the “dyarchy” that left the most power in Sonia Gandhi’s hands.
This will once again reinforce allegations that as the frontman in said arrangement, the former PM may have been complicit — in a half-knowing sort of way, and in spite of his personal merits — in some corrupt wheeling and dealing going on behind his back. Such allegations include the undervalued sale of coal mining rights to investors under his government. “Undervaluing,” resulting in this case in lost revenues in the order of $210 billion dollars according to an estimate mentioned here, would imply informal kickbacks paid by the investors to certain beneficiaries in return, in what is a fairly typical form of corruption. That, if true, is certainly a bit too much to overlook without getting at least a part of the blame, even if Manmohan Singh’s approach to this may have reflected his understanding of pragmatism at the time and he may have seen no workable way to stop this from happening.
Coming several months after the publication of The Accidental Prime Minister, and a week or two after the launch of One Life Is Not Enough, Daman Singh’s book now is not the kind of book that would spend much time discussing such issues, however. Of Baru’s and Natwar Singh’s memoirs the author has this to say:
“I haven’t read either of the two books. They’re not the sort of books I normally read. As far as I can tell Natwar’s book is about politics which is not the kind of book am normally interested in reading … I wrote this book because I wanted to discover my parents as individuals.”
In her story, Indians can, for instance, sympathize with the young Manmohan, the former Cambridge guest student who, during his time in Britain, did not have much money and had to skip meals and get by on sixpence chocolate bars. They may get useful reaffirmation of Manmohan Singh’s generally positive image as a bookworm — as a man of constant contemplation. In Daman’s words:
“He worked in bed where he sat cross-legged with a pillow on his lap, a stack of files beside him. As he hunched over his papers, inscribing neat squiggles, he would tug his beard and mutter to himself. When he was not working, he was usually preoccupied with a book or else with his thoughts.”
Even the pratfall effect (i.e. that our respect for someone we already hold in high regard may increase after we witness the person in question commit a small, non-consequential mistake, or display weakness in some irrelevant area) may come — in consonance with the image above — to Manmohan Singh’s advantage. Quoting Daman again, on her father:
“He was completely helpless about the house and could neither boil an egg, nor switch on the television.”
Boiling eggs may be tough, but politics can be even tougher. And politics at the helm of a country of 1.2 billion people can be… even tougherer. To say the least, under such circumstances, one may benefit from books written by empathizing family members. This is even more so in the wake of a wave of semi-accusing accounts by frenemies — people on your side who were always part team members and friends, part fellow travelers and opportunistic exploiters, as is the norm in politics.
Having said all this, these are of course only initial impressions from my part, in lieu of having read the book itself — to which I am looking forward.