Former IAS officer and Asian Development Bank director Prateep K Lahiri’s autobiography, "A Tide in the Affairs of Men: A Public Servant Remembers (Roli Books) says history would judge Manmohan Singh’s performance as Finance Minister (1991-96) much more favourably than the good doctor as Prime Minister (2004-14).
Lahiri has cited many instances to show how Singh sought interventions that were not appropriate and showed that he succumbed to pressure when it came from the “high and mighty.” In his soon to be released memoir, Lahiri relies on his experience of working with Singh, first as Revenue Secretary and then as ADB director where Singh was a member of the Board of the Governors.
Lahiri says Singh is unostentatious to the point of being simple. “it is indeed unfortunate that as Prime Minister (Singh) he has been accused of having presided over a Government tainted by scams. This is perhaps due to the fact that being a thorough gentleman, he lacked the assertiveness needed to curb the errant ways of some of his Ministers.”
He says the Peter Principle, according to which ‘in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence’, applied to Singh who proved to be an excellent Finance Minister but could not live up to expectations as Pime Minister.
“It is somewhat paradoxical that economic management, which was Singh’s forte, was what let down the UPA Government’s second term. It has been said that the trio of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia comprised the dream team that would lead India to prosperity. This is ironical since one of the main factors leading to the decimation of the UPA in the general elections of 2014 was believed to be the mismanagement of economy resulting in the fall of growth rate.”
Lahiri recalls two instances, relating to personnel matters pertaining to professional staff working in the ADB, that Singh wanted to take up with the management of the bank.
“In the first case, I was asked to press for the recruitment of a young woman as a professional staff member in the ADB. I was told that the FM wanted this done since the person was the daughter of a journalist, who had access to the then PM (PV Narasimha Rao)." Lahiri reminisced how the candidate had no other special qualifications or experience.
"I initially conveyed to the Ministry that it would be inappropriate for me to press for the appointment of the journalist’s daughter. However, I was told that there were pressures which compelled the FM to insist on this being done. In the circumstances, I recommended the case to the department dealing with recruitments in the ADB. However, not unexpectedly, they tactfully turned down the request. I conveyed this to the Ministry and was later told that the FM was ‘disappointed,” recalls Lahiri.
Months later, Singh reportedly again took up a case of promotion of an Indian professional working in the bank. He was the son of a very prominent figure in public life in India who was also a personal friend of Singh.
“I was told by the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Finance, that the FM wanted this case to be taken up so that the person got promoted to the next higher rank, something that he had missed out on. Thus compelled, I sought a meeting with the president of the ADB to seek a promotion for the staffer. Mitsuo Sato, then the president, heard me out, said a few polite non-committal words, changed the subject and soon afterwards the meeting ended. The promotion of the Indian staff member did not, of course, materialise. In fact, if anything, the intervention was counterproductive and the person continued at the same level for several years thereafter. Since he was a competent officer, perhaps this unwarranted intervention actually delayed his promotion,” observes Lahiri.
Dwelling upon Singh’ inability to assert to curb the errant ways of some of his Ministers, Lahiri recalls how Singh as Finance Minister under Rao had failed to check Rameshwar Thakur, a junior Minister in the Finance Ministry. Thakur, a charter accountant, remained a 10, Janpath loyalist till his death in 2015.
"I came to know that Rameshwar Thakur was to be appointed as MoS in charge of the revenue department. Once a partner in a chartered accountancy firm and a practicing chartered accountant, he had been appearing in tax matters before officers of the Income Tax Department,” Lahiri, who was then Revenue Secretary, recalls, “since an issue of propriety was involved, I took the liberty of requesting the FM not to place him in charge of the Revenue Department. When I first broached the topic, the FM agreed to give thought to this suggestion. He realised that as Thakur had till recently been part of a chartered accountancy firm and had been appearing in tax assessment matters before the departmental officers, conflicts of interests could arise if he was placed in charge of the revenue department as the MoS. A day later, however, the FM told me that the decision had been made and Thakur would be the MoS in Finance.
Lahiri has written extensively about Singh’s apt handling of the beleaguered economy in 1991 and instances of his simple living. In fact, Lahiri’s first encounter with Singh took place in November 1990 when Chandrashekhar had taken over as Prime Minister. Lahiri was Revenue Secretary and Yashwant Sinha was Finance Minister.
When the Budget was being prepared, budgetary proposals were taken to the Prime Minister to obtain his clearance.
"I recall that it was fairly late, around 11 pm, that we the secretaries, accompanying Yashwant Sinha trooped into the rather make-shift bungalow office of the PM at South Avenue. This room had jute mats spread on the floor, with bolsters thrown in for support. All of us sat down on the floor, with the PM sitting in the centre. Apparently, he preferred such a rural setting, though to some of us it seemed a rather quaint way to hold a meeting to clear proposals for the country’s budget,” Lahiri writes.
He was surprised when Chandrashekhar suddenly said he would like to have the views of Manmohan Singh, the then economic adviser to the PM, on the proposals. The bureaucrats were taken aback as it was not the practice to share budget proposals, which are considered to be secret, with anyone other than those in the inner circle of the Finance Ministry. At around midnight, Chandrashekhar rang up Manmohan Singh and requested him to come and join him at the meeting. 1990 was a time when mobile phones had not made their advent. Chandrashekhar’s phone rang and the Prime Minister himself answered the phone. Singh had called back and not realising that the Prime Minister was on the line, Singh said that a car may be sent to fetch him since he did not have a vehicle to take him to the meeting at that late hour. Chandrashekhar, much to the embarrassment of Singh, told him that a car would be sent for him.
On another occasion, Singh had a speaking engagement in the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in Delhi and the then Finance Minister’s wife Gursharan Kaur had also received an invite for the function. Singh went directly to the venue of the function from his office while Gursharan Kaur had to be separately escorted from her New Delhi residence. The young officer who was to escort her assumed that there would be an official car available for Gursharan Kaur in which she would accompany the FM’s wife to the venue.
“However, when Gursharan Kaur came out, there was no official car available at the residence to take them to the function. She explained to the deputy secretary that she did not have any official vehicle at her disposal, the only official car being with Manmohan Singh. This greatly embarrassed the deputy secretary, but Gursharan Kaur was unfazed and smilingly offered to drive her Maruti 800 car to the venue.
"This incident speaks volumes of the simplicity of the family. Most other Ministers, and even Secretaries to the Government of India, generally manage to have more than one car at their disposal by getting these attached from public sector undertakings, subordinate offices and so on. But Manmohan Singh had just one official car and even his wife did not have access to it,” Lahiri wrote.
Lahiri, however, names 2008 India-US Nuclear deal as an instance where Singh did not succumb to pressure and successfully brought the "high and mighty" to trust his judgement.
Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai