Singh’s leadership could be boon for India’s poor, world’s Sikhs

Well, India has its first minority prime minister. It is indeed a first – not only in India but also possibly in all the world’s democracies.

Whatever the reasons or compulsions – and there is so much speculation – one credible explanation for Manmohan Singh’s elevation to the august office seems to be that perhaps the moment had arrived for it to happen.

I don’t mean it in a fatalistic way – though such thoughts cannot be far from our traditionally fatalistic thinking – but perhaps as a comment on the confluence of forces that well may have made it the best answer one could have looked for.

The consensus that is emerging around Singh has made the transition for which no one was prepared seem easy and orderly. We look not only tolerant, but also like a mature society grown beyond our years in the democratic tradition.

When you look around, you hear a lot being said. There are concerns – “Sonia Gandhi will still be the power [behind the prime minister’s office.] Hope Singh will turn out to be his own man!” reads one comment on the Web.

There are others who worry about Gandhi becoming an extra constitutional center to which anyone unhappy or dissenting with Singh may turn for redress. President Pervez Musharraf has already invited her to visit Pakistan. Several more invitations will surely follow, again raising questions about any potential for interference with executive functions.

There also are expectations, variously articulated. An e-mail I received said, “Sonia Gandhi was going to villages and telling the farmers that they were ignored and telling the youth that the promised opportunities were a mirage. The most interesting fact of the campaigning by Sonia Gandhi is that she never told as to how she would care for the farmers and open opportunities for the youth.

“Her answer did come, but only after the victory of secularism. Her answer is Dr. Manmohan Singh, a panacea for India’s social and economic ills.”

I thought of several “what if” scenarios and wondered what may have impelled Singh to walk into this. Surely not flaming ambition or political opportunism – if that were so, by now, people would have discerned the trait.

Reading so many of his speeches, comments and interviews, I get the impression that he envisions the nation at a point when change can happen to improve the lives of millions, and the country can accomplish sustained growth to achieve its rightful place in the global community.

He also thinks that, if well directed, India can place itself on such a trajectory of durable progress within the span of one generation. He may, therefore, likely be driven by a sense of destiny, an innate optimism and hope.

Singh is conscious that economic progress must bring, sooner rather than later, some relief to the travails of the weak and deprived. He has talked of “reforms with a human face.”

Still, it is not clear what is new and different about this sentiment that would not arrest the momentum of growth and make the process less discriminatory.

Let us hope the emerging intellectual and operational clarity about what it means – and the steps taken to achieve it – are not a repeat of so many failed approaches tried over the last 50 years of command economic development.

A large majority of people has survived only with what little their toil brings them at the end of the day in their petty, small, self-employed capacities. Their dogged perseverance and resourcefulness in the face of insurmountable odds is an asset that must be harnessed as a resource for development.

I hope this humane vision translates into reality and does not become another meaningless catch phrase like “garibi hatao” (abolish poverty) that nobody wants to revisit now.

Be that as it may, it is quite likely that something really good may eventually come out of the current happenings. Singh does have impeccable credentials – his experience and his expressed thoughts do provide assurance that with his awareness he should be able to lead through ideas.

As a Sikh, I must say that I greatly share the undercurrent of optimism in the community and the sense of pride of having one of our own as prime minister.

Singh has the good will of the community, which wants to support his endeavors. This, then, may be the moment for him to reach out, to right the old wrongs Sikhs blame on Congress, and in the process bring strength to the pluralistic foundations of the Indian society.

Sikhs also hope that media exposure consequential to Singh’s being prime minister may bring increased awareness about them and help issues connected with their religious observances to be better understood.

One can only hope it happens, although one must also be prepared for Singh’s political detractors to consider him a fair target for jokes and stereotypes.

It is again a season for speculations and expectations and concerns and humor. Let people, however, keep their feet on the ground. Let them not look for a panacea. Let them not be anxious. Let them also not be frivolous. Let them be motivated to continue to do and support what is right and hope that Singh will do right by the country.

Who knows: The “moment” may really have arrived? Let the story unfold!

Nirmal Singh lives in Farmington, Conn. He is the author of the book, “Exploring Sikh Spirituality and the Paradox of Their Stereotyping in Contemporary American Setting.”

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