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The Willful Blindness of Manmohan Singh

The defining history on Manmohan Singh's years as PM will most probably be written a few decades from now

The stock market crash of October 1929 started the Great Depression in the United States, from where it spread to large parts of the world. Some of the best books on the Great Depression, which are still being read, started to appear only 25 years later.

My favourite book of the Great Depression is The Great Crash 1929, written by John Kenneth Galbraith. The book was first published in 1954, twenty five years after the Depression started. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz's A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, which dealt with the Great Depression in considerable detail, came out only in 1963. This book set the agenda for how central banks around the world reacted to recessions.

In fact, books on the Great Depression are still being written. A recent favourite of mine is Lords of Finance-1929: The Bankers Who Broke the World, written by Liaquat Ahamed, which was published in 2009. It won many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for history. What is true about the Great Depression is also true about Mahatma Gandhi. Some of the best biographies on the Mahatma, like Gandhi Before India, have appeared in recent times.

Dear reader, before you start wondering why am I talking about the Great Depression and Gandhi, in a column which is supposedly on Manmohan Singh, allow me to explain. The point I am trying to make here is that the best history is usually written many years after something has happened. The gap is probably necessary to allow historians to iron out the noise. Also, over the years new sources of information appear, which were not available in the first place. For one, documents get declassified. At the same time, letters that the men and women being profiled wrote, appear in the public domain and so on.

Hence, the defining history on Manmohan Singh's years as the Prime Minister of India will most probably be written a few decades from now. Having said that, it is easy to predict that historians won't project Singh in a good light. The story that one usually hears about Singh is that he was an honest man heading a dishonest and a corrupt government. While his ministers may have made money being corrupt, he never did. This is a very simplistic explanation of the entire scenario.

A major reason why Manmohan Singh survived as the Prime Minister of India for a full decade was because he was 'wilfully blind' to a lot of nefarious activities happening around him. Wilful Blindness is a legal concept that was first applied in the British courts way back in 1861.

As Margaret Heffernan writes in Wilful Blindness-Why we ignore the obvious at our peril "A judge in Regina v. Sleep ruled that an accused could not be convicted for possession of government property unless the jury found that he either knew the goods came from government stores or had 'wilfully shut his eyes to the fact'...Over time, a lot of other phrases came into play-deliberate or wilful ignorance, conscious avoidance and deliberate indifference. What they have all in common is the idea that there is an opportunity for knowledge and a responsibility to be informed, but it is shirked."

Manmohan Singh's decade long tenure as the Prime Minister needs to be viewed through the lens of wilful blindness. He was wilfully blind to A. Raja running the telecom industry for his own benefit. Singh was also wilfully blind to the coalgate scam where coal mines were given away free to both public sector and private sector companies. In fact, he was the coal minister when a large number of mines were given away free.

In fact, as Heffernan writes "the law does not care why you remain ignorant, only that you do." Also, on some occasions the wilful blindness comes from that "we focus so intently on the order that we are blind to everything else." Singh was so focussed on following the orders of Sonia Gandhi, who was the actual head of the government, that he chose to remain 'wilfully blind' to all that was happening around him.

Interestingly, when Enron went bust in the early 2000s, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, the CEO and Chairman of Enron, pleaded that they just did not know what was going on in the company and hence, could not be held responsible for it.

Judge Lake who was hearing the case invoked the concept of wilful blindness. As he instructed the jury: "You may find that a defendant had knowledge of a fact if you find that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what would otherwise have been obvious to him. Knowledge can be inferred if the defendant deliberately blinded himself to the existence of a fact."

The phrase to be marked in the above statement is "closed his eyes". The only way Singh could not have known about what was happening around him was if he had closed his eyes to it.

"Magicians never reveal their secrets," writes Scottish writer Ian Rankin in his latest crime thriller Saints of the Shadow Bible. Singh was no magician. If he wants history to treat him a little better than it actually might end up doing, it is best that he spends his years in retirement writing his memoirs of the ten years he spent as India's Prime Minister, like Winston Churchill did.

Churchill in the years after the Second World War wrote his version of history of the Second World War and even won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Manmohan Singh needs to do the same. That way history might also consider his point of view.

Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money. He can be reached at [email protected]

This column appeared in the June 2014 Issue of Mutual Fund Insight.