No, Prime Minister

In praise of Manmohan Singh for making it all happen.

ByAnuvab Pal
No, Prime Minister
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I was at Guwahati train station recently  (not highly recommended unless you like the smell of fresh garbage and old tea), when I came across two magazine covers that had our Prime Minister on it. Neither were pleasant headlines. One said something like the “descent of a man” (I think it said “descent of a man”, and not just “descent of man”which sounds like a mini-series on the Bible). The other one had an equally morose title like “Give up” or “It’s over” or something like that. This being our Prime Minister, there naturally was no expression on his face to suggest anything. Even if it said, “This man is on fire” he’d still look like that. I pity editors across the country who must be tearing their hair out looking for just one picture of him exasperated or in despair (some emotion reflecting where the rest of us are) or elated (at something, anything), but he doesn’t give them that pleasure. He goes with the “no look” look.

A lot has been said about Dr Singh and none of it good. That he’s not in the driver’s seat anymore, that he never was, that (like Sourav Ganguly) he should know when to go but can’t, that he shouldn’t have taken the job and gone down in history as the man who liberalised the economy and then went off to teach at Harvard, that he’s told what to do (and the subsequent rumour mill of the Gandhi hierarchy telling him). Naturally no one in India has first-hand knowledge of any of this but opinions over drinks, especially political, is our national pastime and everyone delivers those opinions like they are first-hand. As if they were sitting on his lap watching his power slip away. Time magazine put him on the cover and wrote in capitals, “UNDERACHIEVER”.  If I read and heard all this stuff about me, not to mention comedians around the country doing impressions of the way I speak, cartoonists having a ball drawing my caricatures of haplessness, I’d cry a lot and eat ice cream.

Being the generation that’s seen India go from VIP briefcases (which I miss) and drivers wearing caps (which the drivers don’t miss) to the I-Phone and I-bibo (which sounds somewhat lewd whichever way you look at it), I’m a fan of Dr Singh for making it all happen.

Yes I’ve heard the arguments. It would’ve happened anyway because we were bankrupt, that he was an accident of history, that nations’ economies change and when set in motion the architects don’t matter, but the point was, he was there, that Budget, that spring of 1991, liberalising us, taking us from safari-suited men conducting tax raids to Zara aspirers with cell phones going off in every hand every 2 seconds. Not that fashion brands and electronics mean a better nation, but every statistician, even BJP’s most bitter one, will agree that we’re better off than the load-shedding abundant India of 1984.  Well everyone except the author Pankaj Mishra who often argues that the good old days were better. Maybe he had a really good generator and a smuggler on call who delivered foreign stuff none of the rest of us was allowed to buy under the license raj. A raj dismantled by our best Finance Minister (note I did say I was a fan), a man now fighting to be relevant to the very people he liberalised with the tools (a free media) they never had, which he gave them, and now doesn’t know how to use them as well as the generation he created. Even I’m confused with the logic of that loop but there is irony in there somewhere.

Dr Singh’s generation would say Prime Ministers and Presidents are not made for TV and magazine covers. They are not talking heads or crowd pullers. They are thinkers, philosophers, leaders, strategists, economists, visionaries, wise men of age. Like Gladstone and Disraeli, eloquent men of letters (when there was such a thing as “men of letters”), driven by reason and knowledge, not demeaning themselves to the public with Hello magazine scoops of the wife’s home decor. Obama’s referred to Dr Singh as the sage (for his wisdom, not because he showed up late some night with a potion and 3 yoga poses). Like Old Greece, the head of a country should have a beard, like Plato, stroke it, point at things and tell us complicated things we’ll never understand.

That seems to have been his game so far. In fact, when the tsunami of scams erupted, he made a speech in Parliament suggesting responding to some of the BJP leadership was beneath him. Winston Churchill’s often quoted line about democracy was that the biggest argument against it was a 5-minute conversation with an average voter. Dr Singh seemed to agree. His world view seemed to be, “I won’t respond to your accusations not because they are or aren’t true but because I have a double Phd in many things from Cambridge and you sir, madam, are a fool who shouts. In fact, not only will I not respond, I’ll give you my “no look look” so you won’t even know what I’m thinking, which by the way, is about a million times cleverer than the cleverest thought you’ll ever have.” 

I assume he hoped the country would understand.

It appears not.

India’s young expect young things. Hip things. Media things. Twitter things from its leader. It does not expect old world stuff such as, “The PM has issued a strongly worded statement” or “The PMO responded with this official statement” or the PM’s address starting with “My fellow countrymen…” that reads like something at a funeral. If they want to know about convoluted economic theories, they don’t need his brain. They have Google.

In a post-Obama world of world leaders, they expect everything to be a bit Obama-ish. Nice suits, glamorous parties, witty things, honest confessions, a heart-breaker speech here, a rousing one there. Photo-ops with kids on Sunday, elegant wives with philanthropic causes on Vogue covers, a little Youtube clip of him doing something funny and informal – but always, cool. They expect world leaders to be like the rich guy in your social circle you’d like to be but can’t. They are better off with someone who looks like a Prime Minister and can act like one, than a real one. (Overheard at a dinner party. “Ben Kingsley looks so much more like Gandhi than Gandhi”). Sometimes in life, people need movies more than life.

Maybe Daniel Day Lewis will eventually become a better known Lincoln than Lincoln. Obama making fun of that,played Daniel Day Lewis in a Steven Spielberg spoof at The White House Correspondents Dinner which got 14 million hits and counting. I have no idea what our PM is expected to do in that vein (that Singham spoof where his ripped police uniform reveals a muscled hero doesn’t count. If anything, all it showed us was Ajay Devgn’s head is replaceable). Maybe Dr Singh can do a Gangnam-style thing, his version of 3 Idiots, take Instagram photos of himself eating macaroons. If you think I have no idea, the PMO’s office and whoever their PR firm are, have even less. Clearly 600 million plus people are saying, “Not happening uncle”. They’d love to reach out. Any suggestions are welcome.

They say age is an issue with him. Maybe he could call Silvio Berlusconi and find out how it doesn’t have to be.

In the Italian elections recently, a man called Pepe Grillo, a stand-up comedian, was so convincing and powerful in one of his shows that his fan base encouraged him to start a party and he got a whole bunch of votes dividing the national electorate. Before the millions of young people start saying “Vir Das for Prime Minister”, I hope the PMO sends out a strongly worded statement we actually listen to.

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