Rahul Singh : “After the general election I will hand the baton over to a new prime minister,” he declared at the press conference. “I hope it will be a UPA (the Congress Party-dominated alliance) chosen Prime Minister. I am confident that the new generation of our leaders will also guide this great nation successfully through the uncharted and uncertain waters of global change.” The implication of what he said was that Rahul Gandhi would henceforth be leading the Congress Party and that Rahul Gandhi, not he, would be the prime ministerial candidate, just as Narendra Modi is going to be for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, Manmohan Singh had indicated as much last September, when he said that Rahul Gandhi would be “ideal for the PM’s post after the 2014 election and that he “would be happy to work under him”. However, a year ago, Singh had said he would not be averse to another term as prime minister. What made him change his mind? Almost certainly, the disastrous showing of the Congress Party in the recently-concluded State Assembly elections. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two important and populous States, the Congress was heavily defeated. And in Delhi, after having ruled continuously for 15 years, it came an embarrassing third, after the BJP and the new Aam Aadmi Party (which is currently in power there). In effect, Singh is riding into the sunset, a lame duck prime minister for the next few months. The Friday Press conference was nothing less than a farewell appearance after 10 years as prime minister, the longest tenure other than somebody from the Nehru/Gandhi family. However, he took an uncharacteristic potshot at the BJP and Modi, which have constantly been describing him as the “weakest” prime minister the country has ever had. “But if by a ‘strong prime minister’ you mean that you preside over a mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, and that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs, least of all in its Prime Minister,” he said. It was abundantly clear who he was referring to: Narendra Modi and the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, in which some 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, perished. Those were fighting, harsh words, and you can be sure that the feisty Modi will soon respond in good measure. In any case, one perhaps unintended result of the press conference was that Modi was brought back on centre stage of the Indian political scene after the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal, had been stealing the limelight, with his installation as Chief Minister of Delhi and his announcement that free water would be supplied to needy citizens of the Capital and that their power bills would be substantially reduced. How will Manmohan Singh go down in history? Even his admirers – and this writer counts himself among them – might not agree with that assessment. Five years ago, when he was starting his second term, after his party had won a surprising and successive second general election, getting the better of the BJP, the overwhelming consensus was that he could go down as the best prime minister the country has ever had. He was gentle, unassuming, scholarly and utterly honest. However, soon after his second term, his reputation began unraveling, with scam after scam. Nobody accused him directly of any corrupt dealings but as the country’s political leader, he needed to take responsibility for them and take firm action. He did neither. Will India remember him as the great reformer who turned the Indian economy around or somebody who haplessly presided over an increasingly corrupt and nepotistic polity?
(Rahul Singh is the former editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times)