Abrupt end to Manmohan Singh’s love affair with the middle class

For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it must be a sad and lonely new year. Let alone the opposition, apparently even members of his own party think of him as a liability. In fact, Singh’s very personality traits have given a definite fillip to those in opposition to this current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Singh’s media interaction on 3 January is a great example—it only served to consolidate the public perception that has been so violently against him.

The media interaction encapsulated all that was wrong with Singh and the government he has ostensibly led for the last decade. The last ten years were not just a decade lost, but was a time when the prime minister did positively everything to destroy his own reputation and his legacy. If we had a system of approval ratings like in the US, the prime minister’s ratings would have been at a dismal low. Sure, the outrage is magnified in an age of the rampant and unforgiving social media, but given that this is a function of our times that is unlikely to be reversed, it is the public functionaries that need to change their ways.

The 2004 Lok Sabha election verdict was messy in that the Congress had only four more seats than its nearest rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (141 to 137). That is the moment when Sonia Gandhi played her trump card, stepping aside from becoming prime minister and proposing Singh’s name instead. Many were uneasy with the implied dual power-centre arrangement and speculated that this wasn’t a politically feasible arrangement. Singh’s impeccable credentials as an economist and his track record of having pushed through the economic reforms of 1991 (under the leadership of then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao) seemed to make him a great choice to lead India into a period of growth and consolidation as a world power. I, personally, was optimistic and, as it turns out now, naively so.

Over the last decade (and especially in the last four years), Singh’s systematic destruction of his own legacy affects us all. The very same qualities that Singh apparently brought to the table are now disgraced (probably) beyond redemption. ‘Middle class aspirations’ is a much contested and maligned term in this age of the ‘aam aadmi’. However, there is still merit in looking at the middle class aspirations that we pinned on to Singh, that are now lost.

The first, is the idea that an erudite technocrat can deliver the goods. Possibly naïve, but who can say they did not feel some hope when an economist of international repute took over as prime minister in 2004? In the last three years, however, as the economy stumbled, the learned economist could do little but to point to ‘global factors’, not even offering to refer to any economic logic. The only reference in the recent media interaction was to the change in real wages—in the context of a question on inflation—and a dissatisfactory one at that. Thus, Singh began to epitomise exactly why a technocrat should never be considered for the top job again.

The second, is the respect one has for personal honesty. It is impossible to ignore the manner in which Singh appeared to shield his colleagues while trying to absolve himself of all blame. Scandal after scandal came and went—the media and the people of this country consoled themselves that our prime minister is honest. One wonders whether there is any point in being personally honest if you allow this kind of thuggery all around you.

Third is the regard for personal decency. Singh represented a kind of politician and public figure that would never use crass language in public. As he spoke less and less and showed himself enfeebled by the various scams and corrupt colleagues, this decency was something he began to be derided for. All his opponents—from Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal—have used this to their advantage, and the quality of language used in public life has truly hit a low.

Thus, what we have seen is the gradual death of hope for the middle class—the hope that one amongst us can run a government successfully and represent our collective aspirations, while remaining a decent and honest person. This affects us all and nowhere is that clearer than in the blind cheerleading for Narendra Modi. This highlights the damage that the prime minister has done to the public psyche—so many of us are now ready to embrace a polar opposite personality. Propped up to oppose Modi is Rahul Gandhi, a man who has shown no compunction in inheriting his party and is now readying himself to inherit the county, but has given us no reason to trust his so-called ‘impeccable credentials’.

Sadly, there isn’t much happening that promises to remove this state of despair. The Aam Aadmi Party, maybe? As they stumble around getting their grips on the Delhi state government, we will have to be watching very carefully. In many ways, this is their biggest test.

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