Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics

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May 28th, 2009 Shyamal Majumdar

In August 1999, Anjolie Ela Menon was telling everybody that she wished Sonia Gandhi remained the Congress President and Manmohan Singh was projected as the Prime Minister. At that time, it sounded like the celebrated painter’s ultimate flight of fancy
Ms Menon was then one of the inspirations behind a unique platform called `Volunteers for Manmohan Singh’ (VMS), which was basically a Dr Singh fan club. It was election time and VMS was trying hard to drive home the point that the Lok Sabha needs people like Dr Singh.
VMS’ efforts failed miserably as Dr Singh lost the only election he has contested so far (he was defeated by the BJP’s V K Malhotra in the South Delhi constituency by over 30,000 votes). But Ms Menon’s words proved to be almost prophetic as Mrs Gandhi listened to her not once – but twice.
It’s easy to understand why in 1999, everyone thought Ms Menon was stretching her imagination a bit too far by wanting to see Dr Singh as the PM. I am sure even Dr Singh could never imagine this. For, more than anybody else, the gentlemanly Oxford-educated economist himself was acutely aware of his lack of political mass base.
For proof, listen to the man himself.  In his interviews much before he became the PM, Dr Singh has been quoted as saying that “it is nice to be a statesman, but in order to be a statesman in a democracy, you first have to win elections”. That’s something he has never achieved.
Earlier, I agreed with Dr Singh’s self-assessment fully – something which was reinforced during my two interactions with him (both were five years before he became the PM). The first meeting was an interview I did during his election campaign in 1999. Since his answers were becoming almost a repeat of the Congress’ election manifesto and I was more interested in knowing more about Manmohanpolitics than Manmohanomics, I tried hard to provoke him into rebutting the charges his political opponents were making about advertisements issued by his campaign managers in prominent local dailies.
The campaign, designed by Anjolie Ela Menon and issued by a company called India Business Network, asked for votes for Dr Singh. Malhotra, however, complained to the Election Commission that Dr Singh must have spent an estimated Rs 8 lakh on the advertisement and must have exceeded the per candidate personal expenses limit fixed by the EC – serious enough charges against a politician who considers honesty to be his biggest asset.
The charges later proved to be baseless as the advertisement was issued by a couple of industrialists who openly supported him, and I expected Dr Singh to take the opportunity to rip the opposition apart.  But the “politician” before me just requested that he be excused from answering that question and that it would be nice if I could stick to his record in the finance ministry! After that experience, I marvel at the transformation every time I hear Dr Singh using strong words against the Opposition.
My second interaction with Dr Singh was during a trip to Amritsar four months later. I had gone there to attend a function to honour B S Minhas as the Financial Express Economist of the Year (I was working for the paper at that time) and Dr Singh was the chief guest of the evening. After the initial pleasantries, Dr Singh did only one thing during the seven-hour train journey to Amritsar by Shatabdi Express: Read.
But what made me agree with Dr Singh’s the then self-assessment about his lack of political instincts was his response at a press conference after the function. The local journalists were all excited about talking to a man who was not only the country’s former finance minister, but also a son of the soil (his brothers still run auto parts shop in Amritsar) So most of the initial questions were in Punjabi and strictly about local issues.
Dr Singh looked visibly uncomfortable and requested through his assistants that the questions be restricted to national economic issues and that he would prefer to respond in English only. Here was an opportunity to address your own people in their own language and about the issues that impact them directly and the “political leader” was just letting it go! It wasn’t a surprise that most of the local journalists kept quiet throughout the press conference.
Finally, let me share one personal reason why I am a huge fan of Dr Singh and am glad that my initial belief that his lack of political instincts would doom him to fail in a job that is a largely political office has been proved wrong.
Way back in 1995 when he was the Finance Minister, Dr Singh came to the Bombay Stock Exchange to address a distinguished gathering. He was in a hurry to leave as soon as the meeting was over and the huge gathering around him ensured that I failed to ask him any questions despite my best efforts. Dr Singh, who was walking towards his car, suddenly turned back and came near me to say “Sorry, young man, I will talk to you on my next visit to Mumbai”.
I have come back to Mumbai after a stint in Delhi in between and the increasing crowd around him has ensured that I haven’t been able to ask him any questions still. But the humility of the man continues to stump me — still.

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2 Responses to “Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics”

  1. Seve Says:

    The above article is based on misguided premise and feeble notions. To be an effective and competent P.M does not require you to be an Economist from Oxon. I hold a degree in Economics and Chartered Accountancy, does that qualify me to become an able and a comptenet F.M?A good and a competent Politician, is media savvy,charismatic, can connect with people and is an eleoquent communicator. I was fortunate enough to be an audince, on Inward Investment in India, in Europe,where Mr.Singh, have a speech on the econmic environment of India. We had found his speech insipid,lacked vibrancy and the killer punch. It was laced with diet of afcts, rolled out. Though the P.M.’s honesty and integrity is bound question. He is a very honest and a humble man.In my opinion India urgently require a dynamic and a formidable communicator, who is able to project India’s growing image in the world with vibrancy, clarity and authority.

  2. Sanghmitra Gautam Says:

    Dear Mr. Majumdar,
    your written article Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics boosted my motivation and further strengthened my belief that I voted for the right representative. As a first time voter this year it brings a sense of accomplishment beyong compare. I am a strong believer in the search for the right person for the post of prime minister, albiet the political party. As an Economics student I have a special bias towards our current prime minister. I was especially moved by the narration of your own incident with Dr. Singh in Mumbai. Im pursuing my masters in Economics this year and after a PhD I hope to join another your visionary who’s vision and courage I believe in. Thank you for your words they really gave me the determination I sought to attain my goals and work for my country in the future.

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