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History is often about a play of words. The man of the moment who has taken the oath of office for the second term is an actor in search of ‘no character’. It is the invisibility of the persona that is his trump card.
It works in a situation where we are robotising the human. Indian democracy has promoted a standard iconisation of the middle-class. This is not the middle-class of dissent but of consumerism. Our Prime Minister is not the brand; he is the franchisee. Dr. Manmohan Singh, the genial, the educated, the decent man, has power without responsibility.
He will probably go down in history as a bureaucrat being promoted as a great politician. Dr. Singh does not deserve many of the accolades he has got. So, where’s the catch?
The catch is to have canny people to back you. No one realises that the real force behind the liberalisation policies was former Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. As finance minister, Singh became the hero of the industrialists. They did not mind some wealth percolating down to the middle-class as long as it was called the middle-class. Therefore, India’s power is still in the hands of the business tycoons. The swelling belly has not given birth to any major financial power centre; it could well have been a mere bubble.
Manmohan Singh’s role is to showcase a country that exists in the imagination of a few.
That is his version of India. He has never contested an election; he has no grassroots experience. It shows up glaringly when he decides to go rural in his talks. When the Left Parties were opposing the nuclear deal, he tried explaining his stand to the then President George Bush by stressing that it was important to take care of the vulnerability of two-thirds of the population, namely 650 million people, dependent on agriculture for sustenance. “That meant that India needed some degree of protection through special products and safeguards, on which we need greater clarity.”
In his enthusiasm to play Santa Claus he did not notice all those farmers committing suicide or that India was importing wheat. What happened to the great Green Revolution?
The caucus of industrialists supported the deal, not the ordinary citizen or the villager who is supposed to benefit. It was also a major diplomatic sell-out. India already generates hundred thousand mega watts of energy; with this deal we would get 20,000 MW more by the year 2020.
This is what showcasing the prioritised India means. He is no strategist, but he walked away with all the credit for something that amounts to nothing.
In the crass world of politics where wily forces rule, Singh’s asset is that he is a vacillator. His being a phenomenon has more to do with serendipity than statesmanship. The Congress has wisely used his name as their calling card. But it is not true that every wrong move by the party and the onus of it would be on him. Quite the contrary. He is in the enviable position to get away with anything and attribute it to helplessness, because he is not considered rabid, rigid, or regressive. And he is answerable to the dynasty.
It would be no revelation to state that Sonia Gandhi is propping up Dr. Manmohan Singh; the more pertinent point is that he chooses to be propped up.
In the epic Mahabharata, the low-caste archer Eklavya is asked to offer his right thumb as guru dakshina as he could prove to be a threat to the royal Pandava Arjuna. Although he has not been tutored by the guru Dronacharya, he has been inspired enough to practise before his clay idol. The disciple readily offers him his thumb.
In the contemporary context, would it be considered a sacrifice or a measure to please? In the epic, the reason the guru is completely awestruck by the humble archer’s skills is that on being disturbed by a barking stray he aims an arrow and seals the mouth of the dog without apparent injury or loss of blood.
Dr. Singh’s has been a bloodless coup. He has added that dreaded word dignity to the lexicon of Machiavellian manoeuvres. What we see of him today is an elderly patriarch trying to appear upright while promoting a liberal market lifestyle. It must be noted that the liberalism is confined to the market.
He is protecting the brand. The brand comes with the baggage of Bofors. Of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He looks the other way and pushes forward the Rahul Doctrine. No one quite knows what it is. Dr. Singh is probably unaware about it too. Rahul Gandhi has been called the political scion, and there is no need for us to be chary about it, for we have watched this and encouraged it for six decades. Today’s pretence and talk against monarchy are essentially hollow dictums to appear as dissenters.
Rahul Gandhi famously said that his party is proud of the poor in India. The romanticisation of poverty is primarily non-rational. So when we talk about equality it is a legal expression. All legal systems have been brought by force. This suits democracies rather well; you do not have to ensure uniformity because it goes against the egalitarian principle of fairplay.
The Doctrine may have gained some ground in Uttar Pradesh, but that state is not in the big stakes financially. It is good to let the political iron remain hot there while the big businesses thrive elsewhere and keep their saviours in power happy.
One might be prompted to make the rather wicked comment that this is a caretaker government. As Pythagoras said, with the advent of the intelligent man, there is no honest man.
Manmohan Singh has been given a pedestal; the pillar is the Family. Today’s cult figure is ensured tomorrow’s cartoon strip.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org