Dr. Manmohan Singh’s reflections on “harsh” words and the harsher truth

Dr. Manmohan Singh is a picture of grace, decency and respectful behavior in public life, the kind of values that deep study and knowledge are meant to inculcate. Seen in contrast to the raucous lot who rule the roost today, he comes across as even more kind and gentle. How many politicians in today’s times would look back to 2014 and regret some remarks about a political opponent? And those remarks from four years ago were not very out of place. Dr. Singh had said Narendra Modi would prove to be a disaster for the nation, and many might say that his prediction was not far off the mark. But that is not the tenor of what the former Prime Minister said at Indore this last week. His words were reflective: “I used harsh words which I should not have. Now people will make the decision.” He added a message to his successor: “It does not befit the Prime Minister to abuse political opponents.” Dr. Singh noted that Modi was using “unparliamentary words” against the opposition.  These reflections and hesitations on past conduct are soothing in our turbulent times. The standards of political debate, if what we have in the current milieu can be called a debate at all, have fallen. Theatrics, frothing at the mouth and crassness dominate and appear to travel, crowding out voices that are reasonable and those that raise and answer the questions that must inform public debate.

These reflections and hesitations on past conduct are soothing in our turbulent times. The standards of political debate, if what we have in the current milieu can be called a debate at all, have fallen. Theatrics, frothing at the mouth and crassness dominate and appear to travel, crowding out voices that are reasonable and those that raise and answer the questions that must inform public debate.      

So, it is not unnatural to be nostalgic about the days of Dr. Singh till one is reminded of the harsher truth that it is the tenure of Dr. Singh that brought us the “disaster” that the former Prime Minister had warned the nation against. The days of UPA-II, when allegations of monumental corruption took hold of the government coupled with the silence of the then Prime Minister on important issues of the day set the stage for the BJP landslide in 2014. The popular image of Dr. Singh is of a person who could have done much but did nothing through those difficult days. He was never personally touched by the whirlwind of scandals all around his government; few believe that he is personally corrupt even if his tenure came to be  associated with high levels of  corruption. In that sense, he was a good politician who held the highest elected office in the land for a decade and came out unscathed by scandal, at least personally. That blame fell on the party and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, to whom he was seen as abdicating all power in return for staying in the saddle.

When UPA-II under Dr. Singh lost to Narendra Modi’s BJP, Dr. Singh lost only his job but it was the Congress that lost everything. This is not to say the Congress did not deserve it, nor is it to divert attention from the scandals that now dog the BJP and the Prime Minister. But it is to be noted that under Dr. Singh, the political side of the equation lost the political battle while the officially appointed chief executive kept afloat, making Dr. Singh a better practitioner of the art of self-preservation.  That’s a rather harsh verdict because it sees Dr. Singh’s act of staying silent in the midst of scandal as a deliberate strategy.​ Afterall, did he not threaten to resign when his own party was not ready to support the civil nuclear deal with the US? So, if he wanted, he could ramp up the pressure on the party. A kinder view was offered by a former cabinet secretary who said that Dr. Singh is "a good man", "not cut out for that job” and one who “diminished the office” of Prime Minister.  This is the argument that he was plainly incompetent, not equipped to handle the rough and tumble of politics and so played a bureaucratic role in political sheathing.

Under Dr. Singh, the political side of the equation lost the political battle while the officially appointed chief executive kept afloat, making Dr. Singh a better practitioner of the art of self-preservation. That’s a rather harsh verdict because it sees Dr. Singh’s act of staying silent in the midst of scandal as a deliberate strategy.

The Congress has now to be mindful not to depend on the leaders associated with those times. It must quickly put forward younger faces and while Rahul Gandhi is a step in that direction, the party will need a completely new set of people to articulate its position and take full advantage of the anti-incumbency factor. The party is still  relying quite a bit on leaders from the days of its fall. This makes the task of rejuvenating the party more difficult, less ready to seize the agenda and shape it for the next elections. Ideally, there should be a flush of younger faces debating the nature of politics, the road ahead for the Congress and the country. The Congress has done that for the upcoming assembly elections in four States, where many new faces have been given tickets, but it continues to be in the grip of old timers at the national level.

What lessons can Dr. Singh hold for the political leaders of the future?

The first should be that bureaucrats tend to make bad political leaders. The Prime Minister’s office and the politics of the party cannot be cut up into neat halves; the two are intermeshed and must make a unified case to the people and communicate this at political rallies, not merely at international fora or CII conferences. The Prime Minister is a politician first and must be in the heat and dust of politics. A high IQ is good but it can also a limiting force. Jonathan Haidt in his remarkable book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” quotes studies by the eminent researcher David Perkins to write: “IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries…people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and even handedly”. It doesn’t mean that IQ is to be shunned but it does mean that it is more important for the leader to actively engage, decide, argue, defend and course correct, and take the case to the people again and again. In short, you need a politician in the saddle. The “say nothing” bureaucrat will sink the party.

“IQ was by far the biggest predictor of how well people argued but it predicted only the number of my-side arguments. Smart people make really good lawyers and press secretaries…people invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the entire issue more fully and even handedly.”

On the other hand, “say anything” is equally bad. The over-speaking, over-positioning and over-framing by the BJP has helped give it the name of a ‘jumla’ party. Even if bad taste and witticisms against an opponent draw applause from the base of the party, they tend to come back and haunt the speaker pretty soon. It is the Congress that has used this to telling effect.  Too much of Modi’s noise on the falling rupee, rising petrol prices and jobs – unreasonable and unfair points against the Congress – became the very weapons that came to be used against him. What we need is a saner version of our politics. On that point, Dr. Singh shines. For all else he did or did not do, he reminds us that it is possible to say “sorry” and express regrets for an unkind remark, and to do so gently. We can agree that that is a very good lesson for our current times.