Manmohan Singh Wasn’t Corrupt; Others Were

Dr Singh’s general attitude towards corruption in public life, which he adopted through his career in government, seemed to me to be that he would himself maintain the highest standards of probity in public life, but would not impose this on others. In other words, he was himself incorruptible, and also ensured that no one in his immediate family ever did anything wrong, but he did not feel answerable for the misdemeanours of his colleagues and subordinates. In this instance, he felt even less because he was not the political authority that had appointed them to these ministerial positions. In practice, this meant that he turned a blind eye to the misdeeds of his ministers. He expected the Congress party leadership to deal with the black sheep in his government, just as he expected the allies to deal with their black sheep. While his conscience was always clear with respect to his own conduct, he believed everyone had to deal with their own conscience.

In 2005, when he asked me whether I thought Jairam Ramesh should be inducted into government, I replied that Jairam ought to be more demonstrative of his loyalty to the PM if he wanted a berth in the ministry. I was taken aback when, a few days later, Montek Singh Ahluwalia took me aside at a Christmas party at journalist T.N. Ninan’s house and asked me why I was opposing Jairam’s induction… I am not aware of what transpired after that, but in the following month,January 2006, Jairam did get inducted as a minister of state in the commerce ministry. I was not surprised to learn that Jairam later called on Sonia’s friend Suman Dubey and thanked him for the job.Politics is about power and patronage, and ministerial positions are won not just on the basis of competence but also in recognition of a politician’s clout or loyalty to the leader. For Congress MPs, the leader to please was always Sonia.That Jairam’s loyalty was only with Sonia became clearer within weeks of his becoming minister when he chose to embarrass the PM by leaking a letter that Sonia had written to Dr Singh cautioning him against pursuing an initiative he valued a lot-the free trade agreement with member countries of the ASEAN.

When a colleague got caught, as the DMK minister A. Raja finally was, he let the law take its course. Raja was arrested, placed in judicial custody at Delhi’s Tihar Jail for fifteen months and is currently being prosecuted for his role in the 2G scam. Dr Singh’s approach was a combination of active morality for himself and passive morality with respect to others. In UPA-1 public opinion did not turn against the PM for this moral ambivalence on his part, because the issue had not been prised out into the open. The media focus in the first term was very much on his policy initiatives.

But in UPA-2 when corruption scandals tumbled out, his public image and standing took a huge hit from which he was unable to recover because there was no parallel policy narrative in play that could have salvaged his reputation. In other words, there were no positive acts of commission that captured the public mind enough to compensate for the negative acts of omission for which he was being chastised.


About Author: Sanjay Baru is a political commentator and policy analyst. He served as Secretary General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry until his resignation in April 2018. Prior to this, he was Director for Geo-Economics and Strategy at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

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