MMS: Who's Choice?

As Manmohan Singh bids adieu to a tumultuous political career in days, a question remains. Who brought in Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister in 1991? The political folklore says P V Narasimha Rao wanted a man to reform the finance sector of the country, which was battling balance of payment crisis and worst, a perception crisis internationally. His first choice was former RBI governor I G Patel but he refused and then the mantle fell on his second choice Singh.

But was Singh Rao's choice or Rajiv's? From 1991, this narration has not been challenged but a new book by a close Rajiv (and Sonia) aide R D Pradhan tries a different narrative for the elevation of Singh from an economist to Finance Minister and later Prime Minister.

In 'My Years with Rajiv and Sonia', Pradhan claims that Singh was Rajiv's second choice if Patel had rejected the offer. Rajiv was almost sure of his second innings in power in 1991 after the collapse of S Chandrasekhar government and that he had zeroed in on Patel or Singh to helm the Finance Ministry and bring the country out of the financial debris.

So far, the narrative of Rao's hand in Singh's selection had gone unchallenged. But the book claims that Rao was told about Rajiv's choice after his assassination and he accepted it to the joy of Rajiv aides. He goes on to claim that M L Fotedar, now a no-where politician who was once Rajiv's right-hand man and others knew about his master's choice and they conveyed to Rao.

Pradhan claims that he told Rao on June 20, 1991 that Rajiv had "cleared the name" of Singh as the Finance Minister in case Dr I G Patel was not available for the job. "Our group was happy that PV readily agreed to the choice made by RG (Rajiv)," he writes.

Twenty-four years have gone by after Singh took up his assignment in Finance Ministry no one has come up with this theory so far. Is it an attempt by Gandhi loyalists to usurp credit for everything that had gone right? Pradhan was handpicked by Rajiv and posted him as Home Secretary. No one could doubt his access to 10-Janpath. Later he joined Congress and was part of the inner circle of the Gandhi family. Question will remain why Congressmen, always overzealous to give the Gandhis their due with anything sundry, so far refused to give credit for Singh's reforms.

But at the same time, the book shows that the Gandhis, for whatever reasons, had a soft corner for Singh. There is nothing on record to prove it. But one should not ignore that Sonia did not throw Singh, a Rao loyalist, after Congress lost in 1996 polls. Rao went to oblivion, Sitaram Kesari was unceremoniously ousted. But Singh stayed on and won Sonia's trust. The book claims that Sonia was "not keen to lead" a government in 1999 after the fall of A B Vajpayee government and she wanted someone else from the Congress to be the Prime Minister. Though he did not have first hand knowledge, Pradhan quotes journalist Vir Sanghvi's comments that Sonia indeed told then President K R Narayanan that Singh would lead the government.

Was Sonia following her husband Rajiv? Was she influenced by her husband's choice? The book does not offer any concrete conclusion. The Gandhis never said anything in public neither Singh, who rarely speaks about personal.

The book suggests that Singh appeared to have been in touch with World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials before his formal appointment as Finance Minister. The government send a fax to Washington accepting the conditions stipulated by them.

It was the time when the country has lost credibility internationally following the balance of payment crisis.

Pradhan writes, "He had started working on how to handle the financial crisis. Evidently, at that time the crisis was so severe that the US' representatives in the IMF and World Bank had started looking carefully at the post election scenario and how India could be bailed out."

"Singh must have been in touch with them and also with Gopi Arora, India's Executive Director in the IMF because on the afternoon of June 22 (1991), Jairam Ramesh rushed into the (Congress) Campaign Management Office with a message for Arora and asked my personal assistant, B P Joshi, to urgently fax it to Washington."

Joshi, who had worked in Foreign Office, took Pradhan's permission before sending the fax, as the contents were "highly sensitive".

"Arora was being asked to convey India's acceptable of the conditions stipulated by the IMF and the World Bank. As Singh had not been formally appointed Finance Minister, PV (Rao) had suggested sending that message through the party's CMO," Pradhan writes. He did not mention the contents of the fax.

A question now rises. Was the reform process Rao's plan to be executed by Singh? Or was it Rajiv's? How did Rajiv (or Rao) arrive at the name of Singh as substitute if Patel refused? Did they (Rajiv and Rao) have a premonition that Patel would not accept the offer and they have to look for a second one? What was Rajiv's (or Rao's) thought process?

These questions should not remain unanswered as this was the period when India took a decisive turn. As Leftists allege, did the choice of India's Finance Minister was taken abroad? Both the leaders are no more now. May be their aides can throw more light into it. (ENDS)

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