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From Rao to Kesri to Sonia: The Manmohan way with mentors

Why did Singh, deliberately or inadvertently, say his ‘guru’ was the man who failed to prevent '84 riots?

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Dec 06, 2019, 08.47 AM IST
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PTI
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Singh has often described Rao as his ‘guru’ for ushering him into politics, by making him the finance minister in 1991.
NEW DELHI: Political circles were left amused by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s comment that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots could have been avoided had then home minister PV Narasimha Rao acted on the advice of IK Gujral. Singh has often described Rao as his ‘guru’ for ushering him into politics, by making him the finance minister in 1991. Why did Singh, deliberately or inadvertently, say his ‘guru’ was the man who failed to prevent the riots 15 years after his death? Many politicians recalled, privately, how Singh has positioned himself when it came to his mentors, be it Rao, Sitaram Kesri or Sonia Gandhi.

Referring to Singh’s statement a senior Congress leader said, “this is baffling. Even when the Congress leadership had distanced itself from Raoji, Manmohan Singhji had publicised his love and respect for Raoji by visiting him, and later, attending his anniversaries. This comment is a classic Shakespearian ‘unkindest cut’. Raoji is not alive to say, ‘Et tu, Brute?’”

Even when Singh and Sonia Gandhi apologised for the anti-Sikh riots they never blamed Rao for ‘inaction’, like most Congress leaders. Interestingly, Rao as prime minister always backed Singh when as finance minister he carried out economic reforms and shielded Singh from Opposition attacks. He rejected Singh’s resignation after the stock market scam too.

Politicians feel Singh’s comment on Rao on the anti-Sikh riots may have be an attempt to provide a buffer for prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and by extension his family, who BJP and others have blamed for the riots. It may not change the narrative but many MPs recall a remark of a senior Congress leader who once said, “Manmohan Singh is an overestimated economist and underestimated politician.”

Many senior Congress leaders are witness to Singh’s positioning, vis-à-vis his mentors, in difficult times.

Instance 1: Sitaram Kesri, who succeeded Rao as Congress chief, made Singh a leader by inducting him in the Congress Working Committee. Kesri assuaged his worries and gave him a second Rajya Sabha term after Singh’s defeat in the 1996 Lok Sabha polls. However, that did not stop Singh from joining all but one CWC members in asking Kesri to quit before they sacked him and chose Sonia Gandhi as the party chief. A Congress leader recalled Kesri saying, “I didn't expect Manmohanji to join them.” Politicians also recalled how Singh, prior to his political stint, ensured that his appointment as UGC chairman was cleared by the Chandra Shekhar government just before it quit.

Instance 2: While Sonia Gandhi backed Singh for 10 years, shielding him from several aspiring ‘Congress sharks’, Singh remained intriguingly silent after his former media advisor’s book, Accidental Prime Minister, made waves. The book projected Singh as a hapless PM under an interfering Gandhi and Congress establishment. For weeks, Congress leaders expected Singh to reject the contents of the book. But it never happened. Only his daughter issued a rejoinder.

The proud Singh, however, chose to live with Rahul Gandhi’s humiliation when he junked an ordinance his Cabinet had cleared. However, Congress leaders were in a for bigger surprise when at 87, Singh ‘accepted’ his sixth Rajya Sabha term. “Manmohan Singhji is a trained bureaucrat and experienced politician, who knows the art of surviving. We hope to see it till the next LS polls, at least,” said a senior parliamentarian.
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