An unusual life in unusual times
Manmohan Singh belongs to a select list of serious scholars who went on to become substantial politicians. They include Woodrow Wilson, who was president of the American Political Science Association before he became the US president; Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, a left-wing professor of sociology who promoted right-wing economic policies while occupying the highest political office in his country; Andreas Papandreou, who was chair of the department of economics at the University of California at Berkeley before becoming prime minister of Greece; and the first president of free Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who wrote a classic work of anthropology while his country was still under British colonial rule.
I was born long after Wilson died, and have never visited the countries that Cardoso, Papandreou and Kenyatta worked in. But as an Indian I have been witness to the imprint of Manmohan Singh’s policies for much of my adult life. Thus, when I found myself in Delhi on the day his collected works were being released, I made sure I was in the audience for the event. In the front row sat various former cabinet ministers; alongside me in the middle rows were a range of scholars, students and professionals.
Singh’s collected works run to six volumes in all. The first volume reprints his Oxford D Phil thesis, a precocious critique of export pessimism; the second and third contain his scholarly papers on trade, development, monetary policy and the international economic order; the fourth principally contains the speeches he gave as the finance minister who oversaw the opening of the Indian economy; the fifth and sixth reprint a selection of his speeches and press conferences in his ten years as prime minister. The evening began with presentations by the volume editors, these being three professors of economics – K Sundaram, C Rangarajan, and Nicholas Stern – and one professor of history – Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Listening to them speak, it struck me that Singh’s economic philosophy synthesises the work of his two great contemporaries, Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. Like Bhagwati, he strongly advocates a freer play of market forces and a greater integration with the global economy; like Sen, he strongly emphasises the importance of social equity with access to health and education for all. Singh shares neither the archetypal capitalist’s contempt for the poor and vulnerable nor the archetypal socialist’s contempt for innovation and entrepreneurship. The phrase he made his own, ‘inclusive growth’, captures an approach to economic policy that is pragmatic without being dehumanising.
After the editors had their say, Singh ascended the stage, to be interviewed by his former chief economic adviser, professor Kaushik Basu. The conversation was both free flowing and wide-ranging. Singh spoke movingly about his early life and struggles; of how a child of Partition born in a modest home became a scholar. He remembered with particular affection his teacher in Hoshiarpur, S B Rangnekar, who urged him to go abroad for further studies; before paying his dues to his more famous mentors at Cambridge and Oxford; Nicholas Kaldor, Joan Robinson, John Hicks and the like.
The conversation then returned to India, to his years first as a teacher and then as a public servant. Here too, the generosity of spirit was manifest. He acknowledged the support to his work of the prime ministers he had worked with, cutting across party lines – Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and P V Narasimha Rao – of his colleagues in the bureaucracy, and of younger associates who had provided key inputs into his policies. And he told many humorous stories, several aimed at himself.
Through a long evening the audience sat silently listening, utterly absorbed. Singh came across as a person of warmth and compassion. There were no boastful remarks about his contributions to the nation (or to the world of scholarship either). The tone was scrupulously non-partisan throughout, except at the very end, when, as he saw the compere come on stage to announce the event’s closure, he leant towards the microphone and said: “I certainly was not a prime minister who was afraid of talking to the press”, before outlining several instances of unrehearsed press conferences that he had held while occupying that office.
This claim was reported widely in the press, as being aimed at the current prime minister, whose own conspicuous reluctance to be open to questioning in public is well known. On the other hand, it must also be said that Singh was a prime minister who was afraid of the electorate. Before him, Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao had become PM unexpectedly and (as it were) accidentally, but had sensibly sought election to the Lok Sabha soon afterwards. Like them, Singh should have fought and won a Lok Sabha election after becoming prime minister, and certainly when his party sought re-election in 2009. His reluctance or refusal to do so weakened him (and his office) considerably, in a symbolic as well as substantive sense. His inability to tame dissidence in his own party, to confront corrupt allies, and his perhaps excessively deferential behaviour towards the Congress president, are all owed in some measure to this failure.
I am glad I was in Delhi on December 18. Given whose intellectual legacy was being discussed, it was, as it were, a historic occasion. Singh has led an unusually interesting life in unusually important times. He is a good and decent man who has made fundamental contributions to public life in India. While we honour these contributions, we must not allow ourselves to forget the mistakes he made that hurt him, and hurt us too.