At a time when Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership has come under the scanner from the books of Sanjaya Baru and Natawar Singh, the former PM’s daughter Daman Singh has sprung to her father’s defence with her own book, “Strictly Personal, Manmohan and Gursharan”. She says her father is not a manipulative politician or a wheeler-dealer.
In an exclusive interview with TOI ahead of the release of her book, Daman reveals many aspects of Manmohan Singh’s life. Excerpts:
Q: Your book says your father didn’t believe in 2009 that Congress was going to win a second term?
A: Yes he said that in a casual moment. I didn’t probe it. But he said that no, no I don’t think we are coming back. He seemed to believe so, although it was said in a light hearted way.
Q: What was the relationship between your father and Narasimha Rao?
A: My father got a call from him and overnight he was the FM. He had a month to present the Budget. The economy was in a ghastly mess. Narasimha Rao made it all happen. Without him, my father could not have done anything. The ideas and radical approach came from my father, but it was Rao who made it politically feasible. My father always says it was a minority government that changed the course of India’s entire economic policy. My father felt if he had five more years he could have done more.
My father says it is difficult to change things in India unless the system breaks down completely because in a large democracy its only when things reach breaking point that people are willing to change the system. You can’t impose radical change from above. There was a lot of resistance to reforms from within the Congress party, he had to constantly explain to people what he was doing. The whole process was very difficult. Narasimha Rao had to steer the party through it.
Q: Was your father attacked from within because he tried to bring change?
A: C Subramaniam was someone greatly admired by my father. I discovered while writing my book that Subramaniam pushed the green revolution, but at the political level he was called an agent of America. Radical change is hard to bring about. Subramaniam lost his seat. Pioneers don’t get rewarded, pioneers are never remembered.
Q: Do you feel your father was unsuited for politics?
A: I don’t think he is a misfit in politics but manipulative politics does not come to him easily. He’s not a wheeler dealer. But he survived, didn’t he? Against all odds, against all the doomsayers he survived. He’s not a reluctant politician. He enjoys a challenge, he takes risks and does not play safe. In fact, my father is a risk taker.
In 1991, the question was not about joining politics but on whether to become FM or not. Politics came along with the job, it’s not as if he joined politics and then got the job. He took an enormous risk in 1991, he risked his entire life’s reputation on economic reforms. 1991 was like a war situation.
Q: Do you feel your father’s reputation has been damaged by revelations in the books of Sanjaya Baru and Natwar Singh? Did you feel you had to rescue your father’s image?
A: I haven’t read either of the two books. They’re not the sort of books I normally read. As far as I can tell Natwar’s book is about politics which is not the kind of book am normally interested in reading. I am interested in politics as a process. I wrote this book because I wanted to discover my parents as individuals. And I think they enjoyed talking to me about their life, and reflecting on different parts of their life.
My mother is the power beside him rather than behind him. She’s a people person and she has looked after him all her life. Work drives my father, he’s a workaholic. Whether FM or RBI governor, he enjoyed all his posts. He had no regrets.
Q: You also say that 2005-2009 had not given your family anything to laugh about?
A: Being PM was a massive responsibility, the amount of stress in a routine situation was enormous. He became PM under some unusual circumstances and he had to hit the ground running. It wasn’t something he had been prepared for. The task was more difficult for him than it would be for anybody else … the suddenness of it. Within days he had put together a team and get the policy framework moving. Then the coalition government had its own challenges. Being a civil servant gives you an insight on how policies are made, how they function, gives you access to information, knowledge, chance to observe how things work but when you are in charge that’s an entirely different cup of tea, the responsibility, initiative, so much of it comes from you as one person, aside from of course the entire government machinery.
Q: Did you or any member of the family ever want him to resign as PM when things got controversial, with all the scams and accusations?
A: We may have had our private thoughts but the lines between the political and the personal are very clear in the family. So we never really voiced anything. But we did worry a lot.
Q: It’s said the family wanted Manmohan Singh to resign when Rahul forced the cabinet to roll back the ordinance on criminal MPs?
A: My father was travelling when it happened, he was in the US. Of course, he was bothered. But that doesn’t mean he had to show it. It’s not as if he didn’t see or hear what was being said about him. A lot of things bothered him. He is as sensitive as you or I. He just doesn’t think it necessary to broadcast his feelings.
Q: Did all the accusations and criticisms get to him and hurt the family?
A: Even as FM my father experienced an enormous amount of criticism – personal, professional and political. His family has been brought in, his daughters have been brought in that they work in American think tanks, etc. He’s weathered it. He has the ability not let it affect him. But I feel very bad about it. I don’t read newspapers or TV, I just switch off. But it would get to my son in school and it was very hurtful.
Q: But wasn’t some of the criticism justified? Didn’t Manmohan Singh, the economist PM, in the end, fail to create the economy he would have wanted to?
A: Since 1981 my father was pushing growth oriented economics. He’s never given up. People say he’s worked in WB and IMF and my first reaction is get your facts right, he’s ever worked in those places. That bothered me. The fact that people said he was toeing the IMF line never bothered me. But he always believed in growth as a way to alleviate poverty and he always knew what he was doing and I am glad he did it. In a specific context he did not go along with the radical shift of Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai, but then the context changed. When he was FM there was need for a radical shift and he carried it out.
Q: He seemed to have a lot of respect for Indira Gandhi?
A: Indira Gandhi inspired his respect, based on his personal interaction with her. She was a power house and she spoke to him as an equal. He was a little known civil servant, yet she heard his ideas, took his advice.
Q: And his relationship with Sonia Gandhi?
A: That came later… You’ll have to ask him
Q: You write that he may have been hurt with Rajiv Gandhi’s remark that the Planning Commission was a bunch of jokers?
A: He wasn’t there when it was said. There were a lot of reports in the media that it was directed at my father. Maybe it was a casual remark.
Q: Did he feel helpless about corruption in the system?
A: I spoke to my father a lot about corruption when I was writing this book. He said after he left Delhi School of Economics and entered the ministry of foreign trade, the then minister had a reputation for being corrupt. But my father said without evidence I cannot put a label on him. I thought that was significant. Later on, HM Patel, who my father admired a lot, was falsely accused, humiliated and he resigned from the civil service. My father had a great deal of regret that such a fine civil servant was subjected to this. My father often said the political system does create corruption, elections need money.
Q: How do you think history will judge your father?
A: I don’t see him my father as a victim. He is a strong man with a conscience, he is hugely competent, and his 10 years as PM were just one part of his almost 40 years of public service. His legacy may not be recognized today. But his legacy is his body of work and is valuable.
Q: Why didn’t you write about his years as PM?
A: Those years deserve a book of their own and I am not the best person. I would love it if he wrote that book.