Whatever be his current reputation, history will describe Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister who presided over India’s biggest scams.

Calls for Dr. Manmohan Singh’s resignation as Prime Minister are very old [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. There are many convincing arguments why Dr. Singh must quit. One, the harm resulting from a leader who never articulated any vision or displayed the will to take the country forward nor the determination to prevent it from slipping backwards due to a flood of scams, substandard government and leadership. Dr. Singh is also seen by many as a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, a willing partner in the clever power-without-responsibility scheme that Sonia foisted upon India after winning the election in 2004, and hence a virtual non-entity when it comes to crucial decision making (with the exception of Indo-US nuclear deal.) The summary being that Dr. Singh is hardly a leader when India badly needs one.

Even then, Dr. Singh’s defenders continued to hold up his right to rule, arising from his academic credentials as an Oxford educated economist and sundry personal qualities listed out every now and then – “impeccable” personal integrity, honesty and decency are often heard (strangely, failure to win a single election seems to be an irrelevant fact here.) Before Wednesday’s press conference, there was still a possibility that Dr. Singh would leave a positive legacy for his role in India’s economic reforms and the Indo-US nuclear deal and the associated shift in India’s international stature. But Dr. Singh reputation took a severe beating even among his most ardent defenders, as he denied any responsibility for the unprecedented corruption that took place under his watch, shifted blame towards “coalition politics” and yet emphasized that he was “dead serious” in bringing to book “all wrongdoers”. The “wrongdoers” belong to the same Council of Ministers of which Dr. Singh is head and for whose actions he bears responsibility by rules, conventions and ethics. The need for action against the “wrongdoers”, felt by Dr. Singh himself, is proof of the failures he refused to honestly admit.

Dr. Singh is not stupid to not know that “coalition politics” is neither a real individual nor a legal person who can be chargesheeted, put to trial, convicted and sent to jail. He knows that blaming “coalition politics” is like a criminal blaming the murder weapon for the crime. What Dr. Singh would not openly say is that, for the Congress and the UPA, staying in power is the ultimate concern even if it comes at the cost of the loss of Rs. 1.76 lakh crore to the country. His denial of any responsibility for the 2G scam and the S-band scam can only be taken to mean that, on account of being a Prime Minister who was appointed by his political chief and not elected by the people, he did not owe as much responsibility to the people as he did to his chief Sonia Gandhi. Hence, even though rules, conventions and ethics demanded that he crack down on errant ministers, while his chief required that he turn a blind eye to it as it would endanger the government, Dr. Singh chose the latter. It is not as if Dr. Singh did not have a choice.

The sad and uninspiring story of Dr. Manmohan Singh is a lesson, especially to the educated middle class which cheerfully welcomed the appointment of the highly educated Dr. Singh as Prime Minister believing that his academic excellence and sundry personal qualities would provide India with quality leadership and enlightened policy making. At the risk of generalising, educated middle class Indians are used to believing that academic excellence is an indication of intelligence and leadership qualities. This belief is acquired from a young age, especially at school, where the class monitor or the class leader is invariably the top ranker in the class and the teacher’s pet. Dr. Singh, who enjoyed unthinking adulation from the same middle class, has failed their expectations. Academic excellence, integrity, honesy, decency etc. are qualities that are admittedly in short supply in Indian politics but in Dr. Singh’s case, they did not result in any benefit to the country. If anything, by several arguments, his is the worst Prime Ministership India has ever seen. The harsh but valuable lesson is that academic excellence, integrity, honesty and decency, though desirable, do not necessarily make an individual a good leader.

Whatever may be his current reputation as a man of “impeccable” personal integrity, honesty and decency, history will describe Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister who presided over India’s biggest scams. While finding reasons, historians may ultimately zero in on Dr. Singh’s character. Because when Dr. Singh had the choice, he made the wrong ones. Nobody but Dr. Singh brought this ignominy upon himself.