Honest Abe and Sharif Manmohan

2009 marks the 200th birth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln, and also the end of Manmohan Singh’s term as Prime Minister. Both ended office with awesome reputations as honest men in highly corrupt eras. Lincoln was nicknamed Honest Abe. Singh has been called sharif Manmohan.

Yet critics have accused both Lincoln and Singh of being hypocrites who advertised their personal honesty but agreed to dirty deals to promote their political aims. Singh’s elevation to the top post in 2004 was hailed as a historic breakthrough for integrity. Yet within days he formed a Council of Ministers that included seven politicians facing criminal charges. The most notorious was Mohammed Taslimuddin, a Bihari ganglord accused of crimes ranging from murder to rape, a close pal of RJD chief Laloo Yadav.

Earlier, when joining Deve Gowda’s government in 1996, Laloo managed to get Taslimuddin made a Minister. But following a public outcry, Deve Gowda dropped Taslimuddin. Deve Gowda was capable of feeling embarrassed at such a scandalous appointment. Not so Dr Singh.

He ended his term with an episode just as sleazy. He faced defeat on a confidence vote on the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Left front had ditched him on this issue, and frenzied last-minute efforts had to be made to secure enough defections from Opposition parties to survive. In Parliament, Opposition legislators exhibited huge quantities of currency allegedly paid to buy their votes.

Ultimately Dr Singh won the confidence vote. But so afraid was he of losing another such vote that subsequent sessions of Parliament were declared to be mere extensions of the monsoon session. Not more than one confidence motion can be moved in a singe session, so this maneuver saved Dr Singh from having to face another vote of confidence, and possible defeat.

Cynics say that all’s fair in love, war and politics, and other parties are no better. They say that Dr Singh was never Prime Minister except in name: he simply carried out Sonia Gandhi’s instructions. Does this argument absolve Dr Singh? Hardly. He could have resigned rather than give in to tainted Ministers and vote buying. But he chose to go along with these.

A stronger defence is that history judges people by their achievements, not the means they used. Abraham Lincoln in his time was also accused of slimy hypocrisy, and with as much justification.

He is revered today as the man who abolished US slavery. Yet in 1860 he won the Republican nomination to run for President largely because he was seen as moderate on slavery abolition. His chief rival, William Seward, was an outspoken abolitionist. But Lincoln claimed every state had the right to decide whether or not to have slavery, and that imposing abolition would be unconstitutional. He thought slavery was morally wrong, but constitutionally acceptable. His partymen felt this soft approach would help win the Border States—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware—that allowed slavery but opposed the secession of the South. This was a key reason for his nomination and electoral success.

On assuming office, Lincoln said his quarrel with the South was not on slavery but on secession. The South insisted on seceding, and the Civil War commenced. Then in 1862, Lincoln suddenly abandoned his oft-stated constitutional position and abolished slavery, on the dubious ground that he could ignore constitutional propriety under the War Powers Act.

His Emancipation Declaration abolished slavery only in the rebel Southern states, not the Border States, whom he dared not antagonize. He said, famously, “I would like to have God on my side, but I absolutely must have Kentucky.”

But once the Civil War was won, Lincoln abolished slavery in the Border States too. According to one analyst, “Lincoln used the Border States to screw the South; and having done that, he screwed the Border States too.”

In Lincoln’s era, the dictum of politics was “to the victor, the spoils.” There was no permanent civil service, so Presidents could literally buy political support and much else with promises of office. To win the Republican nomination in 1860 Lincoln struck dubious deals with a number of notoriously corrupt Democrats.

Few people remember or pay much attention to those sleazy maneuvers today. History remembers Lincoln as the man who won the Civil War and abolished slavery. For the same reason, I think history will remember Manmohan Singh as the man who made India a miracle economy with 9% growth, and clinched the Indo-US nuclear deal.

Gandhiji said the means did not justify the ends. But Yuddhishtra in the Mahabharata thought differently (remember Ashwatthama). Manmohan Singh cannot claim to be Gandhian, but can claim to be Yuddhishtran

What do you think?