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Politician by accident

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

Rrishi Raote tracks how world press opinion on has changed between 1991 and 2012, from “Singh is King” to “poodle”.

In 1991, after his reform budget, famously said: “Let the world hear it loud and clear. India is now wide awake.” But the world press wasn't quick to hail him. Early responses were descriptive rather than laudatory. Reuters on June 23, 1991, said that Singh “acquired a reputation as a strong liberalizer in posts such as central bank governor and deputy chairman of the planning commission”. The New York Times on July 8, 1991, called him “a self-effacing international economist who virtually acknowledges that he is seeking to lead a revolution”, and on March 29, 1992, described him as “a Sikh technocrat with a cherubic smile”.

Later, however, Singh won retrospective praise for his reform role in 1991. Time in a section to mark 60 years of Indian independence — during the UPA government's first term — under the headline “India's most influential” wrote appreciatively: “It's hard to believe is a revolutionary. His speeches tend towards the academic rather than the inspirational [...]. But more than anyone else over the past two decades, it is Singh who has been the decisive figure in India's economic resurgence and newfound confidence in the world. [...] Now, all Singh has to do is keep up the momentum. [...] Singh has proved himself fairly adroit at balancing the need for further reform with the go-slow demands of his government's leftist coalition partners. He's unlikely to oversee a big bang of change again, but thanks to his efforts, India's direction seems set.”

The highlight of Singh's first term was the Indo-US civilian He pushed hard for it, but the Opposition as well as the Congress’s allies pushed back. In 2007 the deal seemed to stall. The PM first prevaricated, then stuck to his guns. The on August 14, 2007, wrote that “Singh has reacted defiantly to the criticism, saying: ‘It is an honorable deal, the cabinet has approved it, we cannot go back on it. I told them [lawmakers] to do whatever they want to do, if they want to withdraw support, so be it.’” And later, the same paper on October 16, 2007, wrote: “Besieged over the past two months by growing opposition to nuclear energy cooperation with the United States, Prime Minister indicated over the weekend that he would rather save his coalition government than the nuclear pact.”

Which was the occasion for a scathing column from Bloomberg on October 16, 2007, according to which, Singh, “a self-proclaimed ‘politician by accident’”, had “invested the little political capital he had into reaching an accord on civilian nuclear-energy cooperation with the US” but failed to hold to it. “Singh is throwing in the towel on the nuclear accord to save his government. [His] unexpected U-turn on the greatly diminishes the possibility of early elections, though at the cost of punching a big hole in the government’s credibility.”

But he held firm and the deal passed.

Fast-forward to 2012, when once again the PM’s stock is low. The Economist on April 14, 2012, described India-Pakistan lunch: “Mint and melon soup, kebabs and blueberry mousse graced the prime minister’s lunch table in Delhi on April 8th. Two lame ducks were also there. Manmohan Singh, India’s leader, is said to dream of a peace deal with Pakistan before he retires, but his authority and energy are waning. Asif

Ali Zardari, his Pakistani guest, should become the first civilian to finish a full presidential term, but he is unlikely to be around after polls early next year.”

And this month the greatest indignity. The Independent on July 16, 2012, asked whether the PM was “India’s saviour or Sonia’s poodle?” According to the article, “Observers say one of Mr Singh’s problems is that he has no genuine political power. Rather, he owes his position to Sonia Gandhi.”

Also in July, Time magazine, which has praised Singh in the past, put him on the cover as “The Underachiever”. It asked: “How has India’s technocrat in chief fallen so far from grace? In the past 20 years, Singh’s avuncular visage and signature powder blue turban were synonymous with India’s rising star, a fixture on front pages since the early 1990s, when, as Finance Minister, he played a pivotal role in liberalizing the economy and setting the nation on the path of fast growth [...] In 2009, when the government was relected, the headlines trumpeted: SINGH IS KING! The mood could not be more different now. India is stalling [...] To turn it around, Prime Minister must emerge from his private and political gloom.”

But again, the pendulum is swinging back: a blog on the Independent’s website, dated July 9, says: “After being widely criticised as an ineffectual prime minister for a year or so, he is suddenly being lauded as the man who can wreak magic now that he is not fettered by Mukherjee’s political superiority and old-fashioned tax-and-spend protectionism and has himself taken the finance minister’s post.” And so it goes.

First Published: Sat, July 21 2012. 00:52 IST