The strongest Opposition voice in the country: Why ‘silent’ Manmohan Singh worries the BJP

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It’s an irony that the man who was ridiculed for his silence, the man who was accused of being weak has now become the Opposition’s strongest voice against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The ‘Accidental Prime Minister’ has proved the power of his silence by speaking out aggressively – in his own carefully chosen words – against the policies of the BJP government.
Each time Dr Manmohan Singh has spoken, the BJP appears rattled. Everyone from the PM and Finance Minister downwards has come out to counter him. The BJP and its top leaders ridiculed him at every opportunity they got during his tenure as prime minister – they called him the weakest PM, ham-handed, a puppet and disparaged him as “nikamma”. However, in May 2015, when Prime Minister Modi invited him for a discussion on the economy and foreign policy, Singh earned the respect of BJP watchers as well as its cadre. Modi was considered a complete contrast to Manmohan Singh. Modi is seen as a strong and articulate leader, qualities Singh has yet to display. But today, Singh stands tall — as he predicted, history is already kinder to him than the media was during his tenure.
On Monday, Singh shocked the BJP with an unusually combative response to the PM’s accusation of the Congress conspiring with Pakistan in the Gujarat elections at dinner organised by Mani Shankar Aiyar. He strongly criticised Modi for the “falsehood and canards being spread to score political points” and sought nothing less than an apology from him. The strongly-worded statement was political too. “Fearing imminent defeat in Gujarat, desperation of Prime Minister to hurl every abuse and latch on to every straw is palpable,” his statement said. These words surprised even his party colleagues. Sources in the Congress said that when the PM first made the allegation, Singh was reluctant to go public and left it to the party to react. However, with the BJP mounting attack on him, Singh changed his mind and broke his silence.
Singh’s attack triggered a series of reactions from the BJP including senior ministers like Union Ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad. Former Army Chief Deepak Kapoor who attended the dinner clarified to The Indian Express that it was just a private dinner and conversation concerned only Indo-Pak relations. However, Jaitley described it as a “misadventure.” He then invoked Sharm-el-Sheikh, alleging that Singh had indulged in a “similar misadventure” in 2009 when he allowed a joint statement after a bilateral meeting between him and his Pakistan counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani, to mention Balochistan in it. Yesterday, Manmohan Singh’s statement seemed to have achieved its objective. More of those who attended the meeting came out to clarify that it was a usual track-II diplomatic meeting. Many in the BJP admitted privately that the PM should not have made such an allegation about a meeting which was attended by former diplomats and a former Army Chief.
Singh has rarely made public interventions in the last three years since the BJP came to power but whenever he has spoken, it has weighed too heavily for the BJP to ignore. In November 2016, Dr Singh termed Modi’s demonetization as “monumental disaster”. He, uncharacteristically, lashed out at the government and its decision, calling it “organised loot and legalized plunder” adding that the ‘50-days’ were like a torture that could have a disastrous effect on the poor and the deprived. He said the decision could lead to GDP declining by two percentage points, which he said would be “an underestimate and not an overestimate.” Immediately, Jaitley countered. However, instead of speaking as Finance Minister, Jaitley reacted politically and reminded Singh of the loot under his regime in the 2G scam, the CWG scam and the irregularities in allocation of coal blocks. He asserted: “An anti-black money drive is (an) ethical drive, a moral step. And what is morally and ethically correct has to be politically correct.” But the damage was done. Singh’s reputation as an economist made his words credible.
Modi took Singh’s attack seriously. He criticised him for his “silence” on scams during his tenure and referred to him as someone adept at bathing with a raincoat on. Modi said: “There is not a single black mark against him despite all the corruption. Only Doctor Saab knows how to bathe with a raincoat in the bathroom.” (Bathroom me raincoat pehen kar nahana…Yeh kala to doctor sahab hi jante hain, aur koi nahin janta). Singh’s intervention during the passage of the GST bill in the Rajya Sabha, earned him the respect of the Treasury benches. While the Congress wanted to make the passage of the bill tougher for the BJP in the Upper House where it had the numbers to stall it, Singh intervened and asked his party not to seek changes in them to “maintain consensus and federal agreement.”