Friday, 26 September 2014

Book review: Strictly Personal - Manmohan and Gursharan by Daman Singh

I’m sure there are millions of Indians who would like to understand the human being behind that inscrutable face, the man who as India’s foreign minister was responsible for policies which in 1991 led to India’s economic liberalization and who later became India’s prime minister for two consecutive terms from 2004 till 2013, a man who is said to have allowed some of India’s most high profile and profligate scams to take place under his watch and a man who finally came to be called a stooge of the Gandhi family, collecting brickbats on its behalf. I picked up Strictly Personal - Manmohan and Gursharan written by Manmohan Singh’s daughter Daman Singh, not only in the hope of finding out more about India’s ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh, but also with the expectation of being presented with Manmohan Singh’s defence against the various allegations that have dogged him during his second term as India’s prime minister.

Manmohan Singh has three daughters and author Daman Singh is his second child. As I started reading Strictly Personal, I wondered about Daman’s reasons for writing this book. Was Daman one of those middle children who crave for her parents attention? Was Daman writing Strictly Personal in order to get parental approval? Or did Daman plan to use Strictly Personal to get back at her father for past injustices?

Manmohan was born in British India in 1932, at a place called Gah, which later became part of Pakistan. India’s freedom struggle was at its zenith. Manmohan’s father Gurmukh was a clerk based in Peshawar, working for a private firm involved in the import and trading of dry fruits. His mother Amrit died when Manmohan was still an infant and Manmohan was brought up, initially by his grandparents Sant Singh and Jamna Devi at Gah, and later by his uncle and aunt Gopal Singh and Ramditi who lived in Chakwal, before he moved to Peshawar to be with his father who had remarried. After Partition, Manmohan’s family moved to India. During the riots which accompanied the partition, Manmohan’s grandfather Sant Singh was killed at Gah.

What sort of man is Manmohan Singh in his personal life? Is he loud and jovial, as would behoove the stereotype of a Punjabi? Or does he behave more or less the way he behaves in public? As a seventies child who grew up in small-town India, I knew a number of men, usually friends or acquaintances of my father, who led the most colourless lives one could imagine. Employed by the government or semi-governmental organizations in various capacities, they were morally upright men who spent very little time with their families and not on account of their long working hours. Relaxation for them usually involved a long chat with other men of similar temperament. Some of them were workaholics and some were religious, but the main characteristic was their anhedonic nature. Naturally thrifty, they rarely went on holidays or watched movies or got drunk. Faithful to their wives with whom they were stiff and formal and from whom they expected and received total obedience, they were not wife-beaters. They didn’t have to be, since subservience was there for the asking. They were incapable of showing much affection to their children either, especially once they ceased to be toddlers. Manmohan can't be called a small-town man, he went to Cambridge and later Oxford, worked in New York and Geneva, but the above description would fit him to a T. Mind you, he is a good man all along. Once, Daman tells us, Gursharan went for an event at Tagore theatre, taking young Daman with her. Kiki was away at school. Gursharan sang to her heart’s content and came back happy. Manmohan however wasn’t very happy. It was wrong of her to have handed over Daman to strangers he reasoned and freezing silence followed, finally forcing Gursharan to apologise. This was the same Manmohan who when he lived with his wife in Oxford, allowed Gursharan to attend a ball at Oxford as his friend Sudarshan’s date, just so that Gursharan could experience an Oxford ball. An all-nighter, Gursharan had a good time and returned home early morning.

There are some men who are primed to be very good at academics. They always get along very well with their teachers and have an instinct for saying and doing the right things at the right time. Well, Manmohan was definitely one of those. We are told that even before he set sail for Cambridge in 1955, Manmohan had set his sights on the Adam Smith prize and found out its rules well in advance.

Manmohan almost always carried his work home. I am sure that the positions he held required a fair amount of work, but did he always have to put in such long hours or did he behave thus because he had no other interests? Was Manmohan good at delegation or was he a micro-manager? Daman doesn’t tell us and I can’t believe she doesn’t know.

One expects to read a number of anecdotes about Manmohan’s contemporaries in a book such as Strictly Personal. There are a few, but not as many as I would have liked. Daman tells us that once at Cambridge, Jagdish Bhagwati’s tutor Joan Robinson uttered the expletive ‘balls’ as she came across an error in his essay. Jagdish apparently believed that this was the English way of expressing disagreement and used the same expression in polite company.

Daman Singh does not say enough about Manmohan Singh’s food habits. He is not a vegetarian, but his favourite dishes all seem to be vegetarian. We are told that young Manmohan had a weakness for chhole, tossed with green chilies and lemon juice. I found a solitary reference to mutton curry being eaten by Gursharan (not Manmohan). Somewhere in the middle, there is a mention of chicken or turkey sandwiches (again Manmohan is not the eater) and towards the end, Daman describes a Christmas dinner at Boston, which had Turkey. I am pretty sure that there is no mention of Manmohan eating any meat. In any event, there isn’t a single reference to tandoori chicken being eaten by anyone. Did Daman, who turned vegetarian later in life, subconsciously block out all memories of meat eating within the family?

Daman tries to devote as much space to Gursharan as she does for Manmohan and she does a good job. Gursharan was a pretty girl who was an average student and who liked to sing. When Manmohan was an academic at Punjab University, there were a number of family get-togethers and picnics. Needless to say, Gursharan seems to have enjoyed these though Manmohan admits to signing a few sad songs such as Lagta Nahin Hai Dil Mera (a poem penned by Bahadur Shah Zafur while in exile in Rangoon) and Aankhan Waris Shah noon, kitney kabran vichon bol (Amrita Pritam’s poem about the Partition).

In 1966, Manmohan and his family moved to New York where Manmohan worked for UNCTAD. Daman reveals that Gursharan was told and not asked if she wanted to go. In New York, Manmohan was keen to buy a car, but could not pass the driving test. Gursharan thinks she could have passed the test, but Manmohan never suggested that she should give it a go. Later when they moved to Delhi, the husband and wife duo learned to drive, but Gursharan was always the better driver.

Manmohan was the typical Indian husband who did little or no housework and made no effort to learn to cook or clean. Precisely nine months after Manmohan and Gursharan got married, they had their first child Upinder, who got the nickname Kiki. Even when they lived in New York, Manmohan expected all his guests to receive Indian standards of hospitality and restaurant standard meals. Gursharan had to do it all by herself, in addition to looking after the children. Daman (rightly) excoriates Manmohan over his treatment of Gursharan.

As a bureaucrat in Delhi, Manmohan ruthlessly applied government rules of conduct to this family. This meant that he cut down socializing so that there could be no possibility of parochialism or nepotism. The office car and telephone were meant solely for office use. The family took very few holidays, but the children were allowed to buy as many books as they wanted.

If Daman does not think much of Manmohan’s social or housekeeping skills, she makes up for it in the admiration she shows for his professional competence and intelligence. Starting from the time he did well at school, to his Cambridge days, his time at Punjab University, his PhD from Oxford, his PhD thesis (on India’s Export Trends and the Prospects for Self-sustained Growth), his work at UNCTAD, it’s all praise, praise and praise and quite rightly so. Manmohan was the typical, clever small town boy who worked hard and earned his laurels. Manmohan was appointed to the Planning Commission and was involved in the 6th and 7th five year plans. Later he was made the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, which made him move to Mumbai. The RBI was riven with trade-unions and a serious strike had just ended. Daman tells us that he father calmed things down by giving in to a number of demands of the workers. In 1987, Manmohan went to Geneva to work for the South Commission, which tried to facilitate south-south solidarity and cooperation.

When Narasimha Rao was sworn in as the Prime Minister in June 1991, he chose Manmohan Singh to be his finance minister. Manmohan had just returned from a trip to the Netherlands when PC Alexander called him late in the night and woke him up. The economy was in a really bad state. Daman quotes Manmohan to say that policy making was entirely left to Manmohan. As a finance minister, Manmohan was decisive and he seems to have enjoyed his job, his detractors notwithstanding.

Manmohan was definitely a social conservative. One of the reasons for returning to India from his UNCTAD job at New York was that Manmohan and Gursharan wanted their daughters to grow up in India, with Indian values. Kiki had just turned ten. Manmohan was not overtly religious and I got the feeling that he is one of those men who always play lip service to the religion they grew up in. None of the three daughters turned out to be religious and Gursharan is upset about it, especially because as parents Manmohan and Gursharan did not take sufficient pains to make their children religious. All three of the daughters married outside the Sikh faith. Kiki’s marriage to Vijay Tankha caused immense pain to Manmohan and Gursharan. It actually took Gursharan quite a while to accept Vijay and eat at the same table with him. Eventually she grew to like him and accepted him. There was less pain when Daman married Ashok Patnaik. When Amu married Barton Beebe, there was only happiness all around.

Many intelligent men (and women) are snobbish and Manmohan is no exception to this general rule. When Kiki opted to study history, Manmohan was not particularly delighted, though he had initially said that the decision was Kiki’s to make. Daman tells us that Manmohan had a low opinion of social science disciplines other than his own. Occasional careless remarks from Manmohan regarding the study of history hurt Kiki. Daman took mathematics and her father was pleased. Was it a case of the middle-child trying to please her father? When Daman switched to the Institute for Rural Management at Anand, her father was not pleased. Amu followed her father’s footsteps, studying economics at Cambridge and Oxford. However, when she suddenly switched to law, Manmohan was distressed. For a while it appeared that his daughters would not measure up to Manmohan’s expectations, but Daman tells us that over a period of time, he learnt to acknowledge the worth of their chosen paths.

Kiki seems to have borne the brunt of Manmohan’s social conservatism and snobishness, though Daman does not say so in as many words. Also, one gets the feeling that Daman played peace-maker more often than not. When Kiki told Manmohan that she wanted to get married, Manmohan asked when rather than whom. Kiki was once again upset.

Daman Singh’s narrative is written in simple English and she refers to her father as Manmohan throughout the book. The book is written chronologically starting from Manmohan’s childhood, but Daman does not hesitate to move back and forth in time and there is topical segregation as well.

Spoiler Warning

Just after the four hundred page mark, I crossed the chapter which describes how in May 1999, Manmohan stood for elections to the Lok Sabha in South Delhi and tasted defeat along with all six other congress candidates for Delhi. I started to turn the pages even faster. What sort of explanation would Daman Singh have for all those scams which took place under her father’s watch? Had Manmohan Singh turned the Nelson’s eye or was he genuinely ignorant of all that was happening around him? Well, I was disappointed. After that electoral defeat, Strictly Personal has a couple of small chapters titled “Moving On” and “And On” and they reveal practically nothing much about those ten years. The rest of it was Notes etc.

There are many bureaucrats who earn a reputation for stellar honesty even as they live and work among those who are dishonest. In many cases, their promotions depend on those who are corrupt. The obvious inference is that though honest in their own dealings, the gentlemen in question are definitely no whistle blowers and can be relied on to not ask too many inconvenient questions. Was Manmohan such a man? Daman actually tells us that Manmohan was one of those bureaucrats who believed in doing good by stealth. In other words, he never challenged a wrong doer, especially if the wrong doer was a superior.

In the 1960s, Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai dissented from the left wing approach adopted by the mainstream at the Delhi School of Economics and were ostracised. Manmohan actually agreed with much of what the duo said in their book Planning for Industrialisation, but he did not take sides. He saw himself as a pragmatist and a consensus builder who did not believe in fighting for a side which was unlikely to win.

Early on in Strictly Personal, Daman narrates an anecdote which has some bearing on this question. While staying at Chakwal with Gopal Singh and Ramditi and their four children, Daman tells us that Manmohan had developed a habit of stealing money from his cousin Tarna and secreting the stolen coins in a sock hidden in a suitcase. And what was the stolen money used for? Apparently for studious Manmohan, ‘schoolbooks were his most precious possessions and he could not bear to see them smudged or torn. If one book was even slightly blemished, he simply threw it away, dipped into his sock and bought a new one.’ Manmohan must have been around nine by then - he had cleared Class Four before he left Gah for Chakwal - and it cannot be said that nine year old Manmohan did not know that he was doing something wrong. What are we to make of a man who would steal to make sure that his books remained unblemished? Does that foretell a love for perfection, without any thought about collateral damage? But then the stolen funds also financed Manmohan’s weakness for chhole.

When the 2nd World War got over, sweets were distributed in at Manmohan’s Khalsa High school. Thirteen year old Manmohan convinced his classmates to refuse the sweets as a mark of protest at India’s continued bondage to Britain. Would Manmohan have been so bold if independence was not in the air? I feel not. I just can’t imagine Manmohan as a freedom fighter in the beginning of the 20th century, when independence was a distant dream.

Manmohan’s childhood friends from Gah remember that he was bad at marbles and that they threw him into the village pond when he refused to play with them. Was Manmohan bullied at school, I wonder?

Manmohan seems to have been a bit of a hypochondriac, one who occasionally complained of palpitations and uneasiness. When it happened, Gursharan would drive him to Willingdon hospital. Daman tells us with a touch of guilt that Manmohan did have a real attack in May 1990, when he was in London. Apparently by-pass surgery was successfully performed.

One of Gursharan’s cousins, a lady, was detained by the security forces in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar. Daman tells us that though innocent, the cousin was detained for 4 years. It is clear from Daman’s narrative that Manmohan Singh did not try to pull strings to secure his cousin-in-law’s release. Was it because Manmohan did not care about that cousin-in-law or because it thought it was wrong to pull strings for any personal cause, even if it was to secure the release of one wrongly jailed?

Manmohan was also a big fan of Partap Singh Kairon, Punjab’s Chief Minister. Pratap Singh Kairon set up an industrial board with representatives from government, industry and academics. Manmohan was on that board. Daman tells us that Manmohan considered Partap Singh to be a man of vision, a nationalist who stood for a cohesive, strong and progressive Punjab. Manmohan admired Indira Gandhi, though he didn’t particularly get along well with Rajiv Gandhi who thought the Planning Commission (of which Manmohan Singh was a member) was a bunch of jokers. I can visualize Manmohan Singh happily working for a Prime Minister like Vajpayee or Advani or even Modi, following instructions quietly and efficiently and doing a good job. However, I just don’t understand why he took so much shit from Sonia Gandhi and her coterie and Strictly Personal left me none the wiser.

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