India’s Woodrow Wislon

Admired abroad but unpopular at home, Manmohan Singh risks being remembered as something of a naive idealist.

“A week is a long time in politics,” said British prime minister and statesman Harold Wilson once. In the case of India’s prime minister, he may add humbly, “And a year is much too long a time to think ahead in politics.”

Nothing illustrates the problem of being Dr Manmohan Singh in Indian politics than the fact that he has never won an election in his life. Just 1 percent of the Indian population fancy him as the prime minister, according to a survey recently held by India Today. But at the same time the majority doesn’t mind having him in power.

A strange equation evolves where we have a competent person of unquestionable intellect like Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister of India while his popularity is soaring below. How did this happen?

The answer to the question is complicated. The nature of Indian politics, which is interesting but mystique, must first be considered.

Heading Manmohan Singh’s party is Sonia Gandhi who owes her position largely to the Gandhi surname. Although she steered the Congress Party to victory in 2004, Gandhi didn’t ascend to the prime ministership because of her foreign birth. She does continue to helm the affairs of the party however to ensure that another Gandhi, her son Rahul, may once day become candidate for the highest office. The India Today poll identified him as heir apparent and one of the most promising politicians in the country.

With Gandhi, in 2004, out of the picture however, India needed another leader, one able to protect its interest in a fast changing world where India is evermore pivotal to international trade. Singh, with his vast experience in academia and governance, seemed an obvious choice and most of the world’s leaders respect him as a senior statesman. Not without reason did Newsweek describe him as “the leader other leaders love.”

But back home, with Naxal violence mounting, the state of Kashmir plunged into chaos once again, China’s posture increasingly assertive, Pakistan’s ability to find “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by elbowing out India, and the United States reluctant to embrace the country as expected so that the prices of commodities are moving up, Singh’s position is anything but admirable.

This is where the prime minister has been most lacking. Had he been a professional politician, Sing would have known how to play to the gallery like his predecessor from the conservative Bharatiya Janata party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Like Vajpayee, Singh commands respect and awe but unlike him, Singh lacks the charisma and ability to understand the nitty gritty of realpolitik which is very much an essential ingredient of leadership.

Manmohan Singh is a statesman of the highest order. There is no doubt that he was the one who steered India out of the woods of socialism with his policies of liberalization just as India became part of a globalized world economy. It has made India what it is today — a huge, growing economic power sitting at the most important tables of world affairs. However, Singh doesn’t appear to understand that all statesmen are politicians before anything else. In fact, that’s the problem of being a statesman. Many are despised during their lifetime as people can’t share their vision. As Winston Churchill pointed out, “Politicians think about the next elections, statesmen thinks about the next generation.” Manmohan Singh needs to understand this right now because most Indians, living in their liberalized economy, find it hard to think beyond the next day.

In conclusion, though Manmohan Singh’s strength isn’t history there is a lot that he can learn from the failures of Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States during the World War I. Wilson had a vision of a new world order, creating the League of Nations which earned him respect all over the world but not at home. He couldn’t convince Americans to even join his international organization, which left the president heartbroken and desolate.

Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, understood how to balance statesmanship and domestic politics. He went on to handle two major crises: an economic depression and another world war. Wilson’s portrait hung in Roosevelt’s office as a constant reminder of the need to consider public opinion.

Roosevelt managed to mobilize the nation to enact the policies he wanted and knew how to speak to the people directly. He was idealistic in his goals but pragmatic about his means. Manmohan Singh is no FDR but could fail very much like Wilson did. Both are from academic backgrounds and both had a vision of the world that was idealistic, perhaps naive. Both, moreover, lacked the political craftiness to make such visions come true. The future will tell whether Singh indeed goes on to be remembered as India’s Woodrow Wilson.