A day after Narendra Modi‘s 8 November demonetisation move, a friend forwarded a message saying “kuch bhi kaho bhaiyon, Manmohan Singh devta admi (PM) tha” (Whatever you say about him brothers, Manmohan Singh was a godly man). The message carried an implicit meaning, the former prime minister during his decade-long tenure allowed you to do whatever made you and all concerned to do whatever they wanted to do — white, grey or black.

Manmohan’s doctoral philosophy in economics and politics cautioned him not to ever think or say na khaunga na khane dunga (Neither will eat nor will allow others to eat). He thus would happily turn a blind eye, see nothing, speak nothing to wrong doings, fixing and scams after scams. And of course, for him, “cash for vote” never happened to save his regime in summer of 2008.

(L) Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB(L) Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

(L) Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy PIB

If someone got an opportunity and dared to ask him pointed questions on scams he would conveniently blame it all on pulls and pressures of a coalition. If all round public pressure was built, CAG slammed for Commonwealth, 2G, Coalgate and so on when the responsibility of wrongdoing would land at his doorstep he would seek shelter in an Urdu couplet, “Hazaaron jawabon se acchi hai meri khamoshi, na jaane kitne sawaalon ka aabru rakhe.” (My silence that is better than a thousand answers, for I kept dignity of end number of questions). He thus remains a devta (God), for his past and present followers ever willing forgiveness even for all kinds of sinners.

It is interesting to note that the person who was condemned while in office for happily presiding over biggest loot and policy paralysis in Independent India and was thrown out of office by people in 2014 with humiliating numbers, only 44 Lok Sabha MPs has suddenly been rediscovered by a section of people as a virtuous economist, able administrator, astute politician and a prolific public platform speaker. It should be left to individual judgment to conclude why Singh is now being looked as an angel to a certain section of people and politicians.

A prime minister by chance, Singh will always be judged by history as the one who owed more allegiance to his political boss in 10 Janpath. He rather chose to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the happenings around him during his tenure in office both in UPA 1 and UPA 2.

So when leader after leader from Congress benches, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Satyavrat Chaturvedi with supportive voices from other friends in opposition, Sharad Yadav, Naresh Agrawal, Derek O’Brien, Sitaram Yechuri were thundering in Rajya Sabha that Singh wants to speak and be immediately be allowed to speak, the nation was taken by surprise. The curiosity was overpowering as to what he would speak and since so many opposition leaders were so enthusiastically rooting for him to speak, it was anticipated that the contents of his speech would be as desired by his political boss in the Congress. It is important to note what was said about him, on his survival instincts even when he was the prime minister that he “is an overrated economist and underrated politician.”

The former prime minister began with the right note: “The Prime Minister has been arguing that this is the way to curb black money, to prevent the growth of counterfeited currency notes and also to help in control of terrorist finance activities. I do not disagree with these objectives…” and then changed gear into a typical politician who only knew the art of survival.

Mark his words: “Even those who say that this measure will do harm or will cause distress in the short run, but is in the interest of the country, in the long run, I am reminded of John Keynes, who once said, ‘In the long run, we are all dead’. And therefore, it is important to take note of the grievances of the people, the ordinary people, who have suffered as a result of this imposition on the country overnight by the Prime Minister…”

Singh is essentially saying that no prime minister should take harsh decisions for heralding longer terms goods for the nation. Think of present and only present and do what can make you stick to your chair. To put it simply be a status quoist. His advice to Modi is thus: don’t think “in the long run” for he could no longer be there — be a survivor, don’t ever consider being a visionary and maker of a different world or domestic order and society.

Singh indeed was speaking from his own experience. It would be worthwhile to remind how Manmohan gulped one humiliation after another by his fellow party colleagues and most of all public condemnation by Rahul Gandhi when the Congress vice-president tore an ordinance drafted by his cabinet when Manmohan was travelling to the USA as prime minister and was about to have a summit meeting with American president. The politician in Singh took all that meekly and quietly. Despite that worst ever public humiliation he continued to hail Rahul’s leadership.

About Singh’s profound remark that “in fact (demonetisation), it is a case of organised loot and legalised plunder of the common people”, less said the better.

When Singh said “and what is more, what has been done can weaken and erode our people’s confidence in the currency system and in the banking system”, he perhaps had in mind the kind of habit many had developed during his regime and before, keeping loads of currency notes in their mattresses, bed boxes, wall cavity in car seats, doors and elsewhere.

In an article on Firstpost, R Jagannathan very well argued, “whether demonetisation and the replacement of old notes with new ones are enough to damage confidence in the banking system is questionable. One would have thought that prolonged inflationary policies through unabated money printing — which was what happened during UPA 2, when the fiscal deficit crossed 6 percent — would have done more to debase the currency than a demonetisation to replace currency notes. And just to refresh his memory, the first major bank scam happened during his watch in 1992, when Harshad Mehta actually looted bank cash to make hay in the stock markets. And as for restrictions on people drawing their own cash, any banking system can — at times — place such restrictions. Banks even now place restrictions on daily cash withdrawals from ATMs. When banks fail, then too restrictions happen.”

Singh and others in opposition ranks can be rest assured as and when Modi rises to speak in Parliament on demonetisation, he would surely respond to the charges and advice given by his predecessor.

First Published On : Nov 25, 2016 19:43 IST

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Note ban: Manmohan Singh rediscovers virtues but his silence during UPA decade is still loud