New Delhi: Several years ago, A.B.Vajpayee expressed astonishment at the humility of Manmohan Singh when he met him in the prime minister’s office. Manmohan Singh saw the former prime minister to the door of his chamber, and Vajpayee liked that about him. The same man called Arun Jaitley and others of the opposition “men of envy” today in Parliament for speaking the harsh truth of economic decline under the United Progressive Alliance government. Why has the humble prime minister become a peevish politician? Does he feel orphaned by failure in office?

Likely.

When you hold public office, your image is determined by your performance. If you are lucky like P.Chidambaram, perception is all that counts. People perceive Chidambaram to be a great finance minister when he is actually a dud and a humbug. You may also be star-crossed like Narendra Modi because his political economic genius will always be a bit negated by the post-Godhra riots.

In Manmohan Singh’s case, he couldn’t have sought a better image than when he was first sworn-in as prime minister. There were few men with his vast experience as an economic administrator. The country was willing for the experiment of Sonia Gandhi handling politics and Manmohan Singh governance. This writer remembers being a big votary of this arrangement.

Except that in practice, Sonia was the real boss. She was the government. The union cabinet, including the prime minister, reported to her. Barring the Indo-US nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh staked ownership on no government policy. After the miraculous return in 2009, the Congress regime turned back to the primary business of looting the nation. A top banker said this week that the plunder has continued apace, despite the nearing general elections, and regardless of the stink created by the exposure of the 2G and CWG scams, Coalgate, Vadragate, Choppergate, and so on. Convinced that it will be routed in 2014, the United Progressive Alliance government has pressed ahead with full-scale pillaging.

If the prime minister cannot stop the looting, nobody can. Manmohan Singh did nothing in that direction. When the economy tanked, he was a helpless spectator. In banking circles, India has already qualified for junk status. If this becomes public, the country can be written off for the next four years. Presumably, the government has leaned on the rating agencies to be kind till the announcement of the elections, but the internal story is grim. Now if the prime is not responsible for this, who is?

Humility sits well with a person who is a doer. When you are not, you need to be humble. Manmohan Singh falls in that category. But from humbleness, he has moved into attack mode, with nothing to show. Any man has the right to self-defence. But what can Manmohan Singh possibly defend about his prime ministership?

If the prime minister is happy with the headlines he generates in aggression, good for him. But this writer suspects he is not. Manmohan Singh is intelligent enough to know that history will be brutal about his two terms. He can’t even be sure to get a footnote. Manmohan Singh is wedded to prime-ministership, not to the idea of providing India leadership. This is where he has failed. But he was bound to, given the nature of the power alliance with Sonia Gandhi.

The United Progressive Alliance will lose the 2014 polls, but it is not clear it has learnt lessons from Manmohan Singh’s failure. Manmohan Singh’s successor from the Congress, if and when that happens, will not be a Nehru-Gandhi, because public office has become poison for the family. It will be Manmohan Singh II, unless the dynasty bites the dust beforehand.

Only a death-wish would draw the country to the United Progressive Alliance again.