You can’t talk about Manmohan Singh that way!
Is it a compliment when the government of one of the largest countries in the world demands that you apologise for something you wrote? Ask Simon Denyer, India bureau chief of The Washington Post and a former Reuters editor based in Washington D.C. and India.
Denyer in a Post article called India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh a “dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government”. Denyer also said that the 79-year-old Singh has fallen from grace, and that he no longer fits the image of being a “scrupulously honorable, humble and intellectual technocrat”.
Denyer didn’t leave much out: Singh is an object of ridicule, has ignored his cabinet’s corruption, has let the rupee’s value collapse, has let his reputation be tarnished, has given away coal mining concessions and cost the treasury billions, and lost the confidence of his party long ago. The implication is that his main value is to be quiet and do what he’s told.
The Indian government demanded an apology. Denyer refused.
His words might be strong, but were they really so strong that they shook a nation of 1.2 billion to its core? Other media, not to mention millions of people on Twitter, have said worse things about Manmohan Singh, the Congress party that he represents and India in general. Time magazine called Singh an “underachiever”. The Independent declared him Sonia Gandhi’s “poodle” (before apparently changing the word to “underachiever”). Nobody asked for an apology then.
Maybe it’s because the United Progressive Alliance, which the Congress party leads, smells its own blood in the water as the 2014 general elections start to look like they might vault its primary opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, into the leadership spot. This appears to have made the government more sensitive to criticism from the big, bad Western press.
The Congress is getting what it asked for. When Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi appointed Singh as Prime Minister, she knew that he would be a loyalist and not freelance on any big problems. Making him Congress’s choice as PM meant that he would never threaten the Gandhi family’s grip on their party. His personality is not going to change now, even though people say that India’s slowing growth, persistent poverty, repeated corruption scandals and other problems require a more outspoken leader.
Besides, everyone knows that Singh isn’t the world’s greatest communicator, and hardly articulates his views.
“It has been my general practice not to respond to motivated criticism directed personally at me,” Singh was quoted as saying in the Post story. “My general attitude has been, ‘My silence is better than a thousand answers; it keeps intact the honor of innumerable questions,’”.
The word on Singh is that he’s a bean counter and a bureaucrat, and that these were qualities that India needed in a prime minister after nearly defaulting on its debt in 1991. It was Singh, then the finance minister, who got the credit for pulling India back from the brink, which featured one of its most embarrassing moments: airlifting 47 tons of gold to the Bank of England and 20 tons to the Union Bank of Switzerland as collateral for emergency loans. (Read the darkly hilarious story here.)
That’s nothing that Singh should apologise for, any more than the Post should apologise for Denyer’s characterisation. They can knock the Post for not including Singh’s views, but demanding an apology through official channels is a bit much. Even if it had a point, it’s not what confident governments of enormous, powerful countries do. When you’re as powerful as you tell everyone you are, asking someone to say they’re sorry for hurting your feelings is beneath you.
* An apology did show up in the Post story. The paper corrected its story to say that Denyer used two quotes – or sentiments, at least — from India experts that first showed up in Caravan magazine, and failed to credit the magazine for them. There’s a whole other controversy about that, which we’re not getting into here.