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Tea And Biscuits With Manmohan Singh

17/03/2015 4:02 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - NOVEMBER 14: The former Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, paying the tribute at the prayer meeting, at the Samadhi of the former Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his 125th birth anniversary, at Shantivan, on November 14, 2014 in New Delhi, India. Prominent freedom fighter and first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru was born to Motilal Nehru and Swaroop Rani on November 14, 1889, in Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and his birthday is celebrated as Childrens Day in India as he was fond of kids. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is not a man to be easily ruffled, so it's not entirely surprising that he took with typical calm the recent summons as one of the accused in a governmental investigation into the illegal allocation of coalfields to Indian corporations.

"Truth will prevail," Dr. Singh told the media last week. "I have always said I am open for legal scrutiny. Of course I am upset, but this is part of life."

I first met him more than two decades ago at a reception hosted by Indian-Americans at the Plaza Hotel in New York, when he was India's finance minister under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. Both men--but particularly Dr. Singh, a trained economist--were being credited with initiating reforms to free the country of the so-called License Raj. Their idea was to liberalise the economy by removing bureaucratic impediments to sustainable growth.

It would be many years before their reforms resulted in anything tangible. Dr. Singh was shrewd enough to recognise that the damage wrought by decades of Fabian socialist policies favoured by Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi could not be suddenly undone. Patience, as much as incremental policies to open up the economy, was the key to Manmohan Singh's approach.

"He weighs his words carefully. And if he's perceived to speak slowly, it's because he evaluates the impact of his sentences before he releases them."

I next met the former prime minister a few days ago in New Delhi at his home on Motilal Nehru Marg, a leafy property in what's known as the Lutyens' Zone. (Edwin Landseer Lutyens was the British architect who, along with Herbert Baker, designed modern New Delhi in the early 20th century when colonial India's capital was moved to Delhi from Calcutta.)

Manmohan Singh rarely gives one-on-one interviews, so this was a special occasion for me indeed. He received me at the entrance of his bungalow, and then personally went to the pantry to ask a butler to fetch tea, biscuits and cashew nuts. He poured the tea himself, solicitously asking if I would take milk and sugar. (For the record, his heart condition and diabetes notwithstanding, Dr. Singh loves to nibble on sugar-free cookies.)

Our meeting had nothing to do with the coal scam, nor with the clangour of contemporary Indian politics. It had nothing to do with his fraught relationship with the woman who anointed him as Prime Minister in 2004, Sonia Gandhi. It had nothing to do with his successor as prime minister, Narendra Modi of the BJP, who, while bitterly assailing the record of Dr. Singh's Indian National Congress, has courteously refrained from attacking the economist.

Our meeting was about Manmohan Singh's views on the importance of empowering women even more vigorously so that they could accelerate their economic and social contribution to India growth.

"Our women are a priceless resource," Dr. Singh said. "Their potential to make our country even greater is enormous. We need to create more educational and employment opportunities for Indian women. This is not a cliché--this reflects a pressing national need."

The context of the interview was an autobiography being written by one of Dr. Singh's long-time friends and associates, Mohsina Kidwai, a former Cabinet minister and current Member of the Rajya Sabha. I've been assisting Mrs. Kidwai with her book, which will be published in late 2015 by HarperCollins, and Dr. Singh agreed to meet with me in order to offer his recollections of the 83-year-old Mrs. Kidwai's dedication to national service.

"She's a remarkable woman," Dr. Singh said more than once during our hour-long interview. "Her energy, her ideas, her total dedication to the uplifting of women--all these are nothing short of remarkable."

"The image that's imprinted on my mind is of a soft-spoken scholar carefully chewing a biscuit, sipping tea, and expressing his hope that India's women will march more forcefully toward creating a modern nation free of scandal and corruption."

Such affirmations are typical of Manmohan Singh, but they aren't empty encomiums. He weighs his words carefully. And if he's perceived to speak slowly, it's because he evaluates the impact of his sentences before he releases them.

But when he does speak about close friends and colleagues such as Mohsina Kidwai--who has worked with every Indian prime minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh--he does so from the heart.

I, for one, find it difficult to believe that a man of probity and common sense would lend his reputation to the scam known as Coalgate. Three years ago--when Manmohan Singh was prime minister--the national auditor accused the Coal Ministry of selling around 200 coal field leases to private steel, cement and power companies at artificially low prices, saying that the process, which lacked transparency, had cost the government about $30 billion. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned most of the allocations.

Dr. Singh, who was prime minister from 2004 to 2014, is currently under investigation on suspicion of criminal conspiracy and breach of trust, among other offenses. The summons is in connection with a coal field allocated in 2005 to Hindalco Industries, during the time Mr. Singh was coal minister. Senior Congressman Kapil Sibal, echoing other leaders, told reporters, "I don't think anyone in India believes that Manmohan Singh can do something wrong or corrupt. He was extremely cautious, and he always wanted to be on the right side of the law. Now he finds himself summoned. We shall defend Manmohan Singh with all our might. "

I cannot imagine Manmohan Singh being manacled and dragged into a dungeon. And I cannot imagine him being complicit to skulduggery.

The image that's imprinted on my mind is of a soft-spoken scholar carefully chewing a biscuit, sipping tea, and expressing his hope that India's women will march more forcefully toward creating a modern nation free of scandal and corruption.

I would call that "progress-gate," not "Coalgate."

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