The leader of a party allied with the Congress described to me a meeting with Manmohan Singh in December 2005, two months after the release of the UN report investigating abuses in the Iraq Oil-for-Food programme. The report had implicated Natwar Singh, then the minister of external affairs, and he was forced to resign as a result, but it had also named Reliance Petroleum Limited as a beneficiary in the oil-for-food scam. The party leader said he had raised the issue with the prime minister, saying, “Sir, the report mentions not just Natwar, it also prominently mentions Reliance. Why are you not taking any action against Reliance?”Vinod K Jose in The Caravan Here
“With a sigh,” the party leader recounted, “Manmohan Singh said to us, ‘After all, what can I do? It is India’s largest corporate.’”
In the course of the last 20 years, Manmohan Singh has been at the centre of two major public debates, both of considerable historical significance: first, over the shift from a socialist planned economy to a liberalised free market, and second, over the turn away from a non-aligned foreign policy and toward stronger ties with the United States. In the waning years of his political career, he now seems likely to occupy a central role—if perhaps a symbolic one—in a third era-defining debate, over corruption and its causes and cures.
Manmohan Singh himself does not symbolise corruption in the way that he has become an emblem of liberalisation and Americanisation, and even if many call his government the “most corrupt” India has ever seen, that record may yet be broken. But the debate over corruption is not really about scandals and bribes, or about the devious schemes of amoral persons inside and outside of government: it is about the increasingly common fear that the system itself is broken, and about the inaction and apathy of those who should be positioned to lead in its repair.
In the end, the fate of Manmohan Singh’s legacy is out of his hands. If the intractable structural crises troubling India somehow get resolved, then his place in history will be far larger than a footnote. But if the centre cannot hold, then Manmohan Singh will be seen as the man who let loose a storm but failed to bring it under control—who sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.