Life after being PM

The one person who does not seem unduly bothered about what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will do once he fades into the sunset is the prime minister himself. This is in character.

As a bureaucrat, Singh used his skills to clamber up the slippery rungs of government ladders. His career, from scholarship boy to Cambridge to the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, was impressive.

But nothing can match what he achieved after he retired. His remarkable destiny could only have been crafted by God in a very, very beneficial mood. If India was surprised when he became finance minister in 1991, then the world was astonished when he became the prime minister 13 years later: 13 is an unlucky number only in the West, not in the East.

The one thing Singh will not do is waste time giving dollops of advice to Rahul Gandhi. Singh rarely offers what is not wanted, and he is a brilliant [if subdued] judge of what precisely is appropriate when. He certainly will not want to hover around like some regent, a role that was resented in the days of monarchy and is even less welcome in the time of democracy.
Nor will he become godfather to the lost generation: the Congress leaders in their 60s and 70s — which adds up to virtually the whole of the present cabinet if you exclude ministers of state — who will become irrelevant once Rahul Gandhi takes over Congress. Taking names might be painful, particularly to those notables who will lose the next election, but we are witnessing the feeble last hurrah of many names that have crowded the headlines in the last decade. Rahul Gandhi speaks a language different not only from seniors like Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee, but also from those two decades older than him.

So, will Singh retire to his library? That is a bit boring for a man who, despite his sober countenance, has enjoyed huge spikes of excitement in a life out of the ordinary. The peace of books might be tempting as a first thought, particularly since a prime minister’s schedule takes a toll on the body almost as much as it does on the mind and spirit. But his physique will get better soon enough, and he will want to fill an empty day with more than a glance through the nostalgic pages of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who defined the agenda of the non-Communist Left for longer than his own career. What then?

International role

There is a role awaiting Singh on the international stage. The fact that he had to limp away from the Indian limelight on Congress crutches should hardly inhibit him in the alternative sphere. Today’s angst will be forgotten after his departure, and he has an international constituency fully aware that anything which goes up in politics must come down. By next January this nightmare will be over for Singh.

By then, the building international crisis will also have reached disaster proportions, as the expanding war zones of Asia between Lebanon and Pakistan lap into central Asia and the western regions of China; and the mid-east of Africa slips towards a murderous quagmire. There are only two men who have some visible presence across borders, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Clinton commands an audience wherever he goes; Blair commands a fee. Clinton could have become the world statesman that we need, but his heart lies in Washington, and in his wife’s potential bid for the White House.

It is a bit shocking that the man chosen by the West as dispenser of balm and keeper of ideas for the Middle East is a freebooter like Tony Blair. Blair’s legacy in Iraq is going to become one of the world’s great septic tanks of radical extremism. Blair will probably be left where he is, as a flit-past operator who is tolerated more than wanted. But Afro-Asia needs Afro-Asian leadership as well.

Singh’s great asset will be as a neutral voice, free from rancour, in regions bedevilled by passions that fuel bitter wars. This was once true only of the epic Arab-Israeli war over Palestine. But Palestine has been overshadowed by Syria and Iraq is returning to chaos. Once America’s presence in Afghanistan is reduced to a base with closed doors, battles between Kabul and Taliban will intensify, and spill over into Pakistan. Wars never have respect for frontiers.

Singh has reserves of goodwill and credibility in Washington, Moscow, Paris and Beijing, as well as the many capitals across the zones of crisis. He will not have black-and-white options, which may be a relief to weary warriors. But he can be a repository of common sense and calm. Both are at a premium.

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