History will judge Manmohan Singh as an ideal leader — and an architect of the Modi phenomenon
Did the then PM have to shed his humility to rise up to voters' expectations?
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When I go back to the not-so-distant history of governance to determine how kind former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his office were, a personal experience I had offers me a clue.
Back to circa 2005, PM Singh released a bhajan album of ghazal singer Jagjit Singh at what was then called the 7-RCR residence of India's head of government.
That was the year when I officially progressed to the position of a reporter in a wire service after spending seven years at its desk.
Obviously, I was a bit too excited to cover an event at the nation's most powerful address.
Beyond a regular PMO note, there wasn't much to report from it though. Still, I happened to have a good conversation with Mrs Gursharan Kaur, PM Singh's wife, and the ghazal maestro.
The topic of our discussion centred around kirtan (hymn-singing) at the Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple).
As we spoke, Mrs Kaur casually mentioned a couple of Sikh holy singers whose recordings her husband would often listen to. I came back to my workstation and churned a story out.So when history will judge Dr Singh kindly, it will also judge him as a key architect of the Modi phenomenon. [Photo: PTI]
Maybe I was too new in the role of a reporter to realise it wasn't something that I should be writing about. Regardless, I did that, thinking it was a harmless piece of information about the personal liking of the country's prime minister.
I didn't see that piece appearing in print anywhere in Delhi the next day, at least not in English publications.
But when I visited 7 RCR again some weeks later for an assignment and met Mrs Kaur again, she gently asked me whether I had reported the conversation she had with me the last time. In a flash, I could make out I had erred somewhere and apologised instantly.
"No worries. It's just that we tend to keep a low profile," she said, her tone low and forgiving. My story, in fact, had been widely published in Punjabi newspapers, prompting a number of other Sikh hymn-singers to shoot letters to PM Singh to request his audience to their talent, she told me. The matter closed there.
No one from the PMO ever complained. No one reprimanded me during my second and subsequent visits to 7 RCR. And, I continued to cover the then PM's programmes off and on although the PMO wasn't my official beat.
"I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the opposition parties in Parliament," he told The Hindu in an interview in 2014. So, my personal experience indeed encourages me to remember him kindly.
The PMO he presided over and 7 RCR he lived in for 10 long years were enveloped by an aura of humility for that decade.
Even his political adversaries would admit, PM Singh hardly ever refused them an appointment for a meeting. A couple of months ago, while we were sitting over coffee, an aide of the top Akali leadership told me his bosses and other leaders from Punjab's ruling party never had trouble meeting the then prime minister.
At times, he said, the Akalis would just leave Punjab after putting in a request with the PMO to see PM Singh. By the time they arrived in Delhi, their meeting with the prime minister would be fixed.
But let's not forget that Akalis loyal to chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had unsuccessfully voted against Manmohan Singh, a Sikh prime minister, in the no-confidence motion of 2008.
Contrast them with the Shiv Sena, which defied the NDA and instead backed Pratibha Devisingh Patil as the UPA candidate for the presidency because of her Maharashtrian origin the year before.
Still, Singh would nurse no personal grudge and meet Badal loyalists whenever they had an issue to discuss. With its president Sonia Gandhi as its face, the Congress party won national elections in 2004 on the back of the Vajpayee government's intriguing India Shining campaign.
But it was able to retain power in 2009 mainly because of PM Singh's image. His progressive politics had helped India end its near 35-year nuclear apartheid. New Delhi's historic civil-nuclear pact with Washington came at the risk of Singh's UPA losing power in the no-trust vote of 2008.
A majority of Indians accepted - and elevated - Dr Singh as their leader a year later. He was no longer a prime minister anointed by a family.
So, the low profile, which Mrs Kaur cited to me in 2005 as the hallmark of Singh's PMship, should have ceased, or at least eased, in his second term for a greater proactive leadership. It didn't though. And that's what triggered the rise of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to the national stage.
So when history will judge the former prime minister kindly, as I did in this blog, it will also adjudge him as a key architect of the Modi phenomenon.
You don't have to shed your divinely-gifted humility, incorruptibility and intellect to rise up to the expectations of millions of voters.
A low-profile attitude shouldn't have given way to complacency. If it hadn't, India would have been different - and better - today.