There are different ways of looking at Manmohan Singh in his many avatars: Intellectual, academic, economist, administrator, politician, public figure or private citizen. The Good Doctor has been feted and reviled for being himself: A fiercely private person holding a public office, reticent but articulate (remember his Hazaaron jawabon se achhi hai meri khamoshi, na jaane kitne sawaalon ki aabru rakhi (my silence is better than a thousand answers; it keeps intact the honour of innumerable questions) retort?) and a genial, likeable and reasonable human being – qualities one generally associates with an average hard working, tax-paying individual.
The most controversial and hotly debated facet of Singh’s personality and attitude has been his philosophy or take on good citizenship, which, by its definition, includes participation in the public sphere. To that extent, Singh epitomises the liberal-minded who tend to withdraw from the public square even when they are in the thick of it, which is why every time Manmohan Singh is criticised it is as much a criticism of them as it is of him. Take, for instance, Singh’s stand on corruption. As Sanjaya Baru put it in his book The Accidental Prime Minister, “Dr Singh’s general attitude towards corruption in public life, which he adopted through his career in government, seemed to me to be that he would himself maintain the highest standards of probity in public life, but would not impose this on others.”
So when the liberal-minded savage him for his reticence (or conspiracy of silence, as some of his trenchant critics would insist), they conveniently forget that criticism can well be directed at them, too; that they are equally to blame for being fence-sitters and not making themselves heard. Therefore, the liberalminded are as guilty or innocent as Manmohan Singh. While their personal integrity might be beyond reproach, they shy away from taking cudgels for a worthy cause. Sannu ki? (Punjabi for ‘Why should I care?’) is a common refrain. Consequently, their interventions are Pavlovian, sporadic and inconsistent.
The decision by some individuals to return literary awards as a mark of protest, albeit symbolic, against a climate of hate prevalent today in some parts of the country and intolerance, made worse by a culture of impunity, should be seen in this context. While we can argue forever about their respective motivations, the fact that they followed their thought with action cannot be more welcomed. Seldom in the recent past have the conscientious, discerning and the liberalminded stood up and spoken out as one against a disturbing event.
An exception was the outpouring of outrage after the gang rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi in December 2012. I call it a watershed in the life of contemporary India. Why? Because, beyond stirring the collective conscience of the society like never before and enabling changes to the law, it sent out an unequivocal message to the elected that the elector’s patience is not inexhaustible. Because it provoked hundreds of men, women and children, boys and girls, young and old, well-heeled and the not-so-privileged, the white-collared and the blue-collared alike to occupy India Gate in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. And, most importantly, because it was not hijacked by partisan politics; the protestors came out in droves because the unfortunate incident made them ashamed of themselves; it militated against their sensitivities, not necessarily their ideologies. Did any one of the protestors care about the brave girl’s caste? No. That should tell you something about us as a society and nation: That we can be scrupulously nonpartisan when we want to.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi might see shades of Singh in him. As some would argue, the RSS is to him what Sonia Gandhi was to Singh. It will be interesting to see whether Modi has it in him (or wants to) use Jupiter’s escape velocity, to borrow a quote from Rahul Gandhi, to break free and chart a path independent of the RSS.
While on the subject of Manmohan Singh, it is only apt that I cite his maiden speech as finance minister in 1991, in which he quoted Victor Hugo, saying that no power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come. Perhaps, the apolitical, but not apathetic, Indian is one such idea whose time has come?