As a human being, Dr Manmohan Singh has many fine qualities. He is soft-spoken, erudite, extremely civil and apparently he has no ego. It is difficult not to like him. My own cursory relationship with him has been both pleasant and rocky. Unfortunately, I discovered that for all his famous humility, he is ultra-sensitive to personal criticism. For a politician, he has a thin skin. I began well with the odd invitation to tea at his office and residence. The trouble started with one piece by Arundhati Roy in Outlook where she went for him in true Arundhati style. Moreover, his courtiers—and there were quite a few—told him that in the Sonia vs PM, or to be more precise, Party vs PM matter, I was firmly on the side of the Party. When rumours started floating that Manmohan may resign if he did not get his way over the 2008 nuclear deal, I wrote an editorial saying the nuclear deal was not worth sacrificing the government for. Incidentally, the magic deal was not even an election issue in 2009. And today lies forgotten.
Coalgate has exposed Manmohan Singh badly. The emperor seems to have no clothes. The scam and the way it has been handled is not just a monumental cock-up but it asks questions of Manmohan the nation has never asked before. I do not wish to dwell on Ashwani Kumar because he is not worth dwelling on. For all of us who know him, he is a crude self-promoter besides being a chump. Anyone who could have called a most indiscreet meeting at his office summoning all and sundry to discuss the confidential status report requires to have his head examined. How does such a man become the prime minister’s favourite? Sycophants do not need to be put in the cabinet. When it comes to picking people, Manmohan Singh has the skill of Julius Caesar.
Alas, there are more serious questions than the hapless white-haired gentleman. Questions which for the first time cast a shadow on the PM’s probity. It is a bit difficult for an independent observer to swallow that the PM was unaware of what Ashwani was up to since the law minister’s shenanigans were specifically designed to save his boss from acute public embarrassment. Furthermore, how is it possible for the officers from the coal ministry and the PMO, who attended the dubious meeting, to have done so without seeking the PM’s permission? If Mr Kumar organised the cover-up attempt suo motu, we should be told!
Dr Singh has been damaged before by previous allegations which hint at misgivings about his integrity. And invariably he has received the benefit of the doubt. This time it’s different since no “coalition compulsions” are involved.
For me, it is no pleasure to attack Dr Manmohan Singh. Alas, things have come to such a pass that probing questions have now become unavoidable. The worst—and I hope untrue—conclusion to draw from Coalgate, 2G, etc is that the man is in love with being prime minister. And will do anything to stay put.
After the eulogies for Margaret Thatcher, here is a useful corrective. It comes from the noted actor Tim Pigott-Smith and it was printed as a letter in the Guardian last week. “In the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s shamelessly political funeral, I wondered why I found myself feeling so angry. In spite of declining an invitation to No. 10, I was unable to avoid meeting Mrs T on one occasion at a charity concert in which we were reading. She knew who I was without introduction, which was most impressive as she had not seen The Jewel in the Crown, screened earlier that year. She assured me, in those ghastly manufactured tones, that she had asked the BBC to send her the tapes. Jewel was not made by the BBC, but by Granada TV.
“She clearly had many formidable qualities—David Cameron isn’t half the man she was—but I remember her as arrogant, aggressive, bullying and brutally divisive. Whatever good she may have done, she damaged arts funding irrevocably, wrecked communities in the north, crippled trade unionism, provoked riots and interfered dangerously with the relationship between government and the police. It’s hardly surprising that there are people who still hate her and all she stood for.”
The Norman Lament
My next story follows on nicely from Mr Pigott-Smith’s letter. Margaret Thatcher once rebuked her chancellor of the exchequer, Norman Lamont, saying “Norman, you are absolutely useless. Anything I ask you to do, you say it cannot be done. If you had been in my cabinet since 1979 (the year MT became PM) I would have achieved nothing.” Lamont replies straight-face, “But Margaret, I have been in your cabinet since 1979.”
In a couple of weeks, I will be inflicting another book on you. Happily, this one costs only Rs 299.
Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief