I met Dr Manmohan Singh for the first time when I was president of the Delhi University Students Union in the late 1960s and he was teaching at the Delhi School of Economics. Though the two of us had nothing in common, we met occasionally whenever I went to the coffee house of D School, as it is known in academic circles. There I had the privilege of sipping many cups of coffee in his august company.
He was a learned man of great simplicity. I met him in between on occasions and invited him, in my capacity as president of the Indian Council of World Affairs, to deliver lectures.
But I really came close to him only in 1999 when he was asked to contest the South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency on a Congress ticket against Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the Bharatiya Janata Party. I asked him why he was contesting against Malhotra when he could have won easily from any other seat. "I have been told by Mrs Sonia Gandhi to contest from this seat only and hence I will file my papers," Dr Singh told me politely soon after I took over as his election in-charge on behalf of the Congress party.
Once the nomination had been filed, he asked me to comply with the guidelines of the Election Commission strictly and not do anything that would invite penal action. We had three cars for our campaign and he gave the numbers of these vehicles to the Commission beforehand. He did most of his campaigning on foot to bring down his election-related expenditure.
Dr Singh, the great economist and former finance minister of India, walked into the lanes and bylanes of the jhuggi jhopri colonies of South Delhi as easily as if taking a morning stroll in his garden. He mingled with the poor and downtrodden people and listened to their complaints.
One day he was campaigning in the Green Park area when a 70-year-old man walked up and told Dr Singh that he was going to vote for him because he had taught his son at the Delhi School of Economics. "My son called me from the USA to say that I must vote for you," the man told Dr Singh, who looked admiringly on the senior citizen.
Right from the beginning we knew we were in for a tough fight against Malhotra. Then we had to deal with some internal problems in the party as well. Dr Singh was deeply hurt when Malhotra made some remark about his turban. Though we wanted Singh to deal with Malhotra effectively, he showed magnanimity by just ignoring the man and choosing not to hit back below the belt.
A top businessman flew in from Kolkata and was keen to contribute money for Dr Singh's election. Despite numerous phone calls and even personal pleadings with staff members, the man did not get an appointment. "Please tell him to go back. If I take money from him, he will ask for a favour and that I am not going to do," Dr Singh told me. He meant it. The man flew back to Kolkata without meeting Dr Singh.
Some jhuggi jhopri workers wanted to have liquor, but again Dr Singh put his foot down and said that even if he lost it would not make a difference to him and there was no way he was going to allow anyone to distribute liquor to buy votes.
When the results came, he lost by over 22,000 votes. He led only in two assembly segments, Okhla and Rajouri Garden. Malhotra led in the other eight. "Maybe there was some shortcoming in me that I could not win the election," he said when it was all over. He did not blame anyone, fully knowing how people within his party had sabotaged his campaign.
Harcharan Singh Josh is secretary, All-India Congress Committee, minority department.
As told to Onkar Singh
Photograph: Ami Vitale/Getty Images | Image: Uday Kuckian