Last week, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the liberalization process, the Indian Express carried a long interview with Dr Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister at the time the reforms took shape. Those were Dr Singh’s finest years in public office; now, in semi-retirement, after an indifferent (if not disastrous) second term as Prime Minister, one might have expected him to adopt a tone of self-congratulation. On the other hand, what struck this reader was how generously Dr Singh praised the people who aided his work as Finance Minister.
For Sonia Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao is (as I argued in these columns back in 2010) the ‘great unmentionable’. Her nominee as Prime Minister in the UPA Governments of 2004-14 is not so churlish. Speaking of the reforms of the 1990s that he supervised, Manmohan Singh noted that ‘there was a lot of opposition in the country and within the [Congress] party. But Prime Minister Rao’s political management made it possible to overcome all that’. He also praised the Commerce Minister, P. Chidambaam, who, he recalled, ‘was very supportive. Without him, the trade policy would not have moved as fast as it did’.
Dr Singh also had kind words for some bureaucrats. So he said: ‘Again, without A. N. Verma, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, the support from the civil service would not have been as strong as it turned out to be’.
Having thanked the civil service and his Cabinet colleagues for their support, Manmohan Singh acknowledged his debts to his fellow scholars. At different points in the interview, he named a total of fourteen other economists; seven within Government and seven outside, who helped the reform process by designing or refining its elements, or by offering their support in public.
The interview ended with Dr Singh praising the governments that succeeded the one in which he served as Finance Minister. He said: ‘I think it is remarkable that even if the process was put in place by a Congress-led government, the next United Front government, led by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, carried forward the process. … Then came the BJP government which also continued the reform process.’
Perhaps this scrupulous sharing of praise was because of Dr Singh’s training as a scholar. All scholars know their work builds on the work of other scholars; it is therefore proper that this be acknowledged. Even so, the acknowledgement of other people’s contributions stood out; not least when one compared with another recent, if far more widely publicized, interview.
I refer, of course, to Narendra Modi’s interview to Arnab Goswami. Since he became Prime Minister, asserted Modi here, the country has ‘moved forward’ in every direction, with ‘an effort to bring in something new in every area’. When he took over, ‘the country was engulfed in disappointment’, but now, two years later, after he had ‘inject[ed] new trust into the system and create[d] confidence among the citizens’, there was apparently ‘no trace of any disappointment’.
Modi insinuated that when he took over as Prime Minister, India was condescended upon by other nations. But now, because of him and his travels, ‘countries and world leaders have changed their perspective towards India’.
To a rare (if only mildly) critical question about his Government’s failure to fulfil the election promise to bring back money illegally stashed abroad, Modi answered: ‘Firstly, this question is not in the minds of people. The people of India have confidence that if there’s someone who can do this, it is Narendra Modi and he will do it’.
Even amidst the self-praise there was a (characteristic) note of paranoia, the sense that any criticism of the Prime Minister was motivated, based on jealousy of his achievements. Thus Modi told his (surprisingly deferential) interviewer that ‘my speech in [the U. S.] Congress and the respect shown towards India created a lot of hype. Had it not been hyped so much, there would not have been so much criticism on the N[uclearS[uppliers]G[roup] issue. Government is being criticized not for any mishandling of the NSG but because we were so successful over there (in the USA).
Towards the end of the interview, Narendra Modi awarded himself one final certificate: ‘See, no matter at what speed I move forward, I am never satisfied. If today I run at a speed of 100, I keep an aim of running at 200. … We just need to give it all. And I have given myself in completely. I’ve been successful in pulling my entire government in’.
If one read, as I did, these transcripts one after another, Narendra Modi came across as boastful. In fact, as compared to other times, other occasions, the Prime Minister was relatively restrained in his self-praise. Recall the six hour extravaganza put on in New Delhi in the last week of May, which ended with the Prime Minister proclaiming, ‘there are so many achievements of my government, that Doordarshan will have to telecast me live for a whole week.’
This trait, of praising oneself regularly and lavishly, was manifested early in Narendra Modi’s move to national politics. In what future historians might come to regard as his coming-out speech, delivered at Delhi’s Sri Ram College in February 2013, Modi made much of the fact that Gujarat was supplying milk to Delhi. This was stated as if he, personally, was responsible for the milk flowing into the bottles that the children of Delhi drank from. In this and other speeches where he made this claim, Modi did not so much as mention the work of Verghese Kurien. A less vain, less insecure, man would have praised Kurien for his contribution to the milk revolution; and gone on to say that the fact that a Malayali Christian found his karmabhumi in Gujarat was a mark of his state’s hospitable spirit (one not shared, at least so far as entrepreneurs are concerned, by Kurien’s native Kerala).
In his campaign speeches extolling the ‘Gujarat model’, Narendra Modi often spoke as if his state was a barren wasteland before he became Chief Minister. The contributions of the state’s co-operative movement, of other Chief Ministers who promoted investment or economic growth, of several generations of outstanding social workers, of pioneering and philanthropically oriented industrialists such as the Lalbhais and the Sarabhais, were never mentioned. Nor were any of his Cabinet colleagues, nor any senior or junior official.
This trend has continued after he became Prime Minister. In speeches and interviews, Modi rarely, if ever, acknowledges anyone as having made any positive contributions except himself. A less vain, less insecure, man would, on his own trips overseas, have praised Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi for presenting an authentic, self-confident India on the world stage; noted the work Manmohan Singh had done in establishing excellent relations with the United States; or, when at home, acknowledged that the Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojna that he now promotes has been made feasible only because of the Aadhar scheme started by the last Congress Government (and opposed by the BJP at the time).
The most successful leaders have balanced confidence in their own abilities with the capacity to reach out to and work with others. Consider Clement Attlee, whose Government rebuilt Great Britain after the ravages of the Second World War. Attlee exuded a quiet authority, but was never remotely authoritarian. So history judges his Government to be the architect of the British welfare state, and acknowledges not him, but one of his Ministers, Aneurin Bevan, to be the architect of the National Health Service, a verdict that Attlee himself would have happily endorsed. Another modern statesman of this ilk was Helmut Kohl of Germany, who likewise worked closely with Cabinet colleagues, never taunted the Opposition, maintained his dignity and poise, and yet was always in charge.
However, perhaps the finest example of a strong leader who altogether eschewed megalomania was Nelson Mandela. Both as a revolutionary and as the head of Government, Mandela was regarded by, and regarded himself as, first among equals. No one disputed his leadership; while, on his part, Mandela made it abundantly and repeatedly clear that the contributions of Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and Joe Slovo were as substantial as his own.
Mandela recognized that no one man or woman, however powerful or visionary, can bring about effective and sustainable social change without the advice, assistance, and (not least) criticism of others. The respect that he inspired among his colleagues was therefore tinged with affection and regard (and never by fear). Indeed, Mandela even inspired respect among his opponents, this most visibly manifest when F. W. de Klerk, the leader of a white supremacist party that had once jailed him, came to serve under Mandela in a Government of National Unity.
I would have invoked Mandela in any case, but the invocation may be particularly timely, since when this column appears in print Narendra Modi shall be on a visit to South Africa. Someone should bring to his attention these words of Nelson Mandela, from a letter written to a friend from jail: ‘The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some sort of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egotistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements’.
In the case of our own Prime Minister, this ‘stage’ started early, and has extended too long. One hopes, both for his sake and ours, that it ends soon.