The Man Who Forgot He Was Prime Minister


By  Vaibhav Vats

NEW DELHI — In political life, perhaps there is no public reaction more denigrating than ridicule. Criticism is part of the terrain, but ridicule entails a deeper kind of humiliation, where the right to even be heard seriously has been taken away.

Ridicule was what greeted Manmohan Singh when, on Friday, he conducted his third – and widely assumed farewell – press conference in nearly a decade as India’s prime minister. The number is indicting in itself, for when the leader of a large, sprawling, vibrant country refrains from speaking to the citizenry in whose name he governs, it indicates either a contempt for public opinion, or a deep-rooted, almost self-defeating, ambivalence toward the demands of high political office.

Mr. Singh received a stiff grilling from the press. Why did he not speak more? Why despite him, a noted economist at the helm, did the economy slide so spectacularly? Why was inflation so high? The press, which may have once looked at him with respect and admiration, was hostile, even scornful, at times.

Things were not always like this for Mr. Singh. In 2009, when he was re-elected as prime minister, Mr. Singh enjoyed the status of a middle-class hero and was regarded by a large section of the electorate as an honest, intelligent and upright man. In the early 1990s, as finance minister, he had been the architect of the economic reforms that awoke India from its slumber. In his maiden speech as finance minister, where he signaled his intent to unshackle the Indian economy from state controls, Mr. Singh had paraphrased the writer Victor Hugo, saying,  “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.”

This was the gentle, erudite, but decisive, man that India had re-elected as prime minister in 2009. His Congress Party had won more than 200 seats, the first time in nearly two decades a single party had won that many. A stifling alliance with the Communists in his first term, which nearly brought down the government, had been shaken off and Mr. Singh had been given a clear mandate to govern.

In the summer of 2010, when he held his previous press conference, his government was suffering early hiccups. Some detected a lack of purpose. But Mr. Singh still enjoyed wide goodwill and a faith that he would be able to turn the situation around.

But things began to go very wrong very soon. In the fall of 2010, bungling and corruption around the hosting of the Commonwealth Games proved an international embarrassment. This was followed by revelations of a series of corruption scandals, chiefly in spectrum and coal allocations. The political narrative had been ceded, and Mr. Singh struggled to regain control. These were setbacks from which Mr. Singh and his government would never recover….

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