After Singh entered the upper echelons of the Congress in the late 1990s, the party gave him a ticket to contest a Lok Sabha election in 1999 from South Delhi—a posh constituency of middle-class voters who had reaped great benefits from the liberalised economy. His challenger was an unseemly state-level BJP leader, VK Malhotra. “It was meant to be a cakewalk for Doctor Sahib, a very sure seat for the Congress,” said Harcharan Singh Josh, a local party leader who served as Singh’s campaign manager. “In the previous year’s state election, ten out of the fourteen assembly seats were won by the Congress MLAs. The Muslim and Sikh populations came to more than fifty percent of the constituency. And everyone was buying the foreign brands in the South-Ex market, brought to India by Doctor Sahib. Malhotra had jhero chance.”
But there were problems from the start. Singh was still an outsider in the party, a talented bureaucrat who had been swept into politics after his successes in the finance ministry, with neither aptitude nor appetite for the dark arts of campaigning. Sonia Gandhi had personally given Singh the ticket, but that hardly guaranteed him the support of the party’s cadres.
“The AICC [All India Congress Committee] gave us Rs 2 million, more than they paid for other constituencies,” Josh said. “But that wasn’t sufficient to keep the MLAs, municipal councillors and the party workers active. He did not know anything about these intrigues—he was having the impression that since the Congress party has given him the ticket, the MLAs and municipal councillors will all work together.”
“For the first ten days,” Josh said, “we had no funds, and industrialists came from as far as Calcutta, calling to ask for appointments to hand over election contributions. But he refused to meet them.”
“One day I told him, ‘Doctor Sahib, we’re losing the election. We have no money,’” Josh said. “Everyone [in the party] said they’ll give money,” Singh replied, but Josh regretfully informed him that further inquiries had demonstrated the emptiness of these promises. Josh told Singh the campaign needed at least 10 million. “Councillor kahta hai mujhe paisa do. [Councillors are asking for money.] Kya karein? Minimum do lakh toh mangte hain na? [What can we do? They ask for 200,000 minimum, right?] Office kholna hai, jo log ayenge, unko chai pilana hai, car chahiye to go this way, to go that way, flags also, banners. So all these things require money,” Josh said. “But he was a different man. He had never dealt with money. So ultimately, one day, I sat with Doctor Sahib, his wife and his daughter Daman. He said, ‘I will not meet anyone.’ I said, Doctor Sahib, we’ll lose the election—money bina, paise ke bina—we’ll lose without money.”
According to his campaign in-charge, Manmohan Singh, who had at first “stood like a rock”, finally yielded to the ethically dubious practices of Indian electioneering. “It was decided that people would come to Doctor Sahib—sir, kuch seva bataiiye mujhe, is there any way for me to be of service? So Doctor Sahib used to say, I want only your good wishes. Nothing else. Then the money will be delivered to Madame [Gursharan] in the next room.” (After the election, Josh said, Singh passed the unused funds—about 700,000—to the AICC.)
“The entire corporate sector was with him,” Singh’s rival VK Malhotra told me. “They got appeals issued by Khushwant Singh, Javed Akhtar; the entire media supported him—the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Star TV.” But elections are not won on the strength of elite opinion, and Singh lacked the ability to reach out to voters or mobilise the Congress ranks. “Several senior party men worked against Doctor Sahib, and the councillors who had affiliations with those senior leaders did not work for Doctor Sahib,” Josh said.
Singh lost by almost 30,000 votes, shocking his supporters and admirers and cementing his image as a man ill-suited to politics, a “weak politician” who would rather sit comfortably in the unelected upper house than face the judgement of voters. When various party figures came back to Singh in 2004, promising to put him in a safe seat and ensure his election, the humiliation of 1999 still loomed large, and he refused all offers.
The defeat, recalled his daughter Daman Singh, was “very hard” on her father. “He felt very alone after that,” she said. “It was a huge blow, sort of like a dhakka for the whole family.”
“He was very subdued and depressed” after the election, the former Union Cabinet minister told me. “It took him almost a year to really come to terms with it. His graph had always been upward, and suddenly it went down—he couldn’t take it. The tragedy was that the Congressmen made sure that he lost it. They said, ‘Who is this chap who has come from outside?’”
After his loss in 1999, Singh retained his seat in the Rajya Sabha, and continued to draw closer to Sonia Gandhi, joining her inner circle of trusted advisers—a position for which his apparent lack of political ambition was likely a considerable asset. When the members of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) gathered to select their leader on Saturday, 15 May 2004—two days after the surprise Congress general election victory—it was Manmohan Singh who presided over the election and announced the unanimous result in favour of Sonia Gandhi. Singh was also present the following day when she called a small informal meeting of party leaders—including Pranab Mukherjee, Natwar Singh and Ahmed Patel—to reveal that she would decline the opportunity to be PM. When Gandhi went to see President Abdul Kalam on Monday to explain that she would not head the government, she brought Manmohan Singh along. At a CPP meeting later that afternoon, Gandhi formally announced her decision, tears welling up in her eyes, to a chorus of shouts and wails from the assembled parliamentarians. The session adjourned without mention of a replacement. But while top party leaders were speculating about the identity of their next prime minister—and a handful of ambitious Congressmen were eyeing the job—Gandhi was at home writing a resolution to elect Manmohan Singh, which was circulated to every Congress MP that night. By the time the parliamentary party met for a third time the next day, Singh’s election was a mere formality.
Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.