His conspicuousness lay in having the most misplaced concept of loyalty, to a person rather than the Constitution. That was his fatal flaw.
The Anupam Kher-Akshaye Khanna starrer, The Accidental Prime Minister, based on Sanjaya Baru’s eponymous book on the immediate past Prime Minister, provides us with an opportunity to examine the phenomenon called Manmohan Singh. Singh is conspicuous, but not for being an accidental Prime Minister, as there had been many before him; his conspicuousness lay in having the most misplaced concept of loyalty, to a person rather than the Constitution. That—unquestioned obeisance to the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi—was his fatal flaw. This also made him unique: no head of government of any democracy before him allowed himself to be demeaned and enslaved by somebody else.
First off, it should be mentioned that he was not the first accidental Prime Minister; there were at least two before him—H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. But it was only Singh whose idea of loyalty was so muddled that his reign—the ruler was Sonia—became a byword for corruption, incompetence, and policy paralysis. In fact, something much worse happened, which nobody has noticed so far: it was under the Singh government that economic reforms were stopped, some most anti-liberalisation measures were taken, and statist attitudes resurrected. Not a very charitable comment for a man who is often credited with inaugurating economic reforms in India.
He famously said in January 2014, “I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the Opposition parties in Parliament.” His belief too, like his loyalty, seems to be misplaced.
His loyalty was feudal. When a man is loyal to a feudal lord, he does whatever he is asked to do; there is no concept of the correctness of orders. If innocent men, women, and children are to be slaughtered, so be it. This is how wars were prosecuted till about a century ago; this is how kings, princes, jagirdars, etc, ruled. This was the rule of men, not of law.
Even after the Second World War when the magnitude of the Nazi crimes against humanity came to be known and Third Reich officials were put on trial in Nuremberg, they cited what came to be known as the superior orders doctrine: while accepting of having committed the atrocities, they pointed out that they were ordered to do so and thus could not be done otherwise, especially those from the armed forces. Thankfully, international jurisprudence rejected this doctrine.
Manmohan Singh can’t even hide behind the superior orders doctrine, for he—unlike Nazi soldiers who pledged to “render unconditional obedience to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler”—was not reporting to Sonia; she was indeed not in government. There is nothing in the public domain, or even in any conspiracy theory, that she was blackmailing him or he was a power-hungry, corrupt man making compromises.
This makes him resemble the classic tragic hero as defined by Aristotle: neither a hero nor a villain but a “character between these two extremes…a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” In his case, it was both, error as well as frailty.
His error was a misconception about loyalty—that it has to be towards a person, not towards the Constitution or some noble, higher principle. So, whenever there was a conflict between what he, as Prime Minister and reformer, felt was correct and what Sonia demanded, he put personal loyalty above constitutional propriety. So strong was the loyalty that despite countless slights (like Rahul Gandhi tearing apart an ordinance), it never let him shed his moral frailty; even the most powerful office of Prime Minister could not buoy his moral authority.
Contrast his attitude with that of his one-time minister Dinesh Trivedi. His party boss, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, wanted him not to increase passenger fares. Trivedi, however, refused to listen to the command of his party boss because he felt that Railways, under his charge, ought to hike tariff. It cost him his office six years ago. Last year, however, he was back in the reckoning.
Singh can be praised for a variety of virtues—despite his indubitable erudition, excellence in public life, predilection for liberalization, and a Westernized disposition (respect for women; getting up, for instance, when a lady arrives which, according to Sanjaya Baru, was misconstrued by political reporters). Yet, for all his good qualities, he could never see beyond loyalty, whatever the cost, which proved to be immense for both the country and his own reputation.
In the fictionalised account of the 1857 revolt, Mangal Pandey: The Rising, the protagonist faces a moral dilemma after participating in a massacre of innocent villagers. Seeing him troubled, his friend and officer, a Briton, reminds him of his duty as a soldier, his loyalty. Pandey’s reply was to the effect: “I wonder if there is anything more than loyalty.”
Singh, if he ever underwent any such moral dilemma, never shed loyalty for greater good.