Politicians are quite transparent in their end-ambitions. LK Advani wants to be prime minister, AB Vajpayee (once he got the job) wanted to achieve a breakthrough with Pakistan, Sonia Gandhi wants the Nehru torch handed over to her son, Jayalalitha wants Karunanidhi's head garnished with rasam, on a platter (and vice-versa ) and Mulayam Singh wants to address the nation from the Red Fort. But, what does Manmohan Singh want? Does anyone know?
Having fluked it to 7, Race Course Road on the strength of his upright virtues — loyalty to the First Family, lowly beginnings, incorruptibility, humility and formidable excellence in the dismal science (economics) — one imagined Manmohan would bring these assets into play at least to a minor but recognizable degree. No politician in India of 2004 seemed easier to define and discern.
Instead, what the country got, especially after 2009, is a man who is a bundle of contradictions, his humility suspect, his dedication to the national cause unreliable , and his genius for passing the buck equal to Milkha Singh in a relay race. He has emerged in Churchill's phrase as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".
Deconstructing Manmohan Singh is a challenge Sigmund Freud would refuse. I always suspected behind the carefully constructed Manmohan persona there lurks a much more complex and canny personality. Sure, he speaks softly and carries a small stick. However, we must remember still waters run deep.
Why even his fabled integrity has come under a cloud as scam after scam implicating him lands on his table. His considered response? "I have nothing to hide." In the last 12 months, innumerable Manmohan admirers have asked me, "He is completely honest, isn't he?" It is both a statement of reassurance and an expression of doubt. For Manmohan Singh to have his probity disputed even marginally is a mighty fall.
Manmohan followers say he is a victim of the malign politics of Sonia Gandhi. "She makes him do all these dirty things and being the simpleton he is, he does them" , is the refrain. This belief which has some currency lets Manmohan off the hook while adding to his reputation as a loyalist. To be fair to the Prime Minister, the she-makes-him-do-dirty-things theory may have a grain of truth.
An instance of Manmohan the Loyalist visited us when the obnoxious Ordinance was sought to be pushed ostensibly with his backing. Post Rahul Gandhi's "nonsense" , Manmohan's mates put it about that their man would either cut short his foreign visit, or alternately rush to 10, Janpath, resignation letter in hand, as soon as his plane touched terra firma. He did neither. After seeking some routine clarifications and consulting with his cabinet, he made peace with the "nonsense" man going to the extent of declaring he would be happy to work under him in any future government. Today, I am afraid, he cuts a pathetic figure: a man who has lost his backbone.
The backbone was not always lost. When it suits him, like during the Indo-US nuclear deal, it surfaced with a vengeance. Since then it has been on holiday. The great HL Mencken once said, "In order to get anywhere near high office, a politician has to make so many compromises that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker."
Journalists enjoy attacking politicians. It is what they are paid to do. Nevertheless, and this would be true of most of my tribe, attacking Manmohan Singh is no pleasure. I do it without relish. Alas, it has to be done. And I cannot avoid asking the question the entire nation is asking: why doesn't he chuck it in rather than take this relentless pounding day in and day out? Our Prime Minister may be many things, but he is not a masochist.
I can only guess. If you have walked on the lawns of the PM's Lutyen's bungalow, it is an experience worth selling your soul for. Peacocks strut around, exotic birds and butterflies fill the air, an occasional stag makes an appearance. Dr Manmohan Singh, let me reveal, is a walker.
Second, whatever they may call you at home, it is nice to go into the corridors of international power and be hailed as a savant and an elder statesman. From Obama to Merkel to Cameron, they all lionize our Prime Minister as a good and wise man our troubled planet badly needs. This kind of acclaim can easily go to your head. A newspaper discovered through an RTI application that this PM has chalked up the largest number of flying hours to foreign lands since independence. Are you surprised?
How will history judge Manmohan Singh? Churchill said history will judge him kindly because he intends to write it. Manmohan Singh may not have that luxury. So, the sympathetic historian might concisely conclude: "He liked his job."
This first appeared in the Times of India