At 78, workaholic pm puts in 18-hour days


Staff member
New Delhi July 1:

Invariably polite and punctilious, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's energy levels and intense concentration can give someone in his 20s a run for his money despite two heart surgeries. Disciplined and balanced in his lifestyle, 78-year-old Singh can keep punishing schedules, switching between reviewing Afghanistan and Pacific security with a visiting prime minister and meeting MPs with localized grievances.

Singh increasingly works out of his 7 RCR office with its attached residence. He begins his day fairly early with a brisk morning walk on the lawns, a routine he is loath to miss out on. He is ready for work by around 7 am. Occasionally, breakfast is when Singh meets people – old associates like economist Jagdish Bhagwati for example -- he would like to toss an idea around with. This is also when he goes through newspapers.

The PM's appointments typically begin around 9 am when he meets senior staffers and at times receives high-level briefings on matters considered priority in terms of security or political significance. Unlike some of his predecessors, Singh does pay attention to detail and holds regular sectoral reviews instead of leaving matters to top PMO officials. After his multiple coronary bypass in 2009, Singh is more careful about having his meals on time and retires to his residential quarters for lunch around 1 pm. He is back at work at 2.30-3 pm in the afternoon.

Although not exactly a night bird, Singh doesn't turn in early. His evenings are usually packed with engagements and there are callers seeking time at short notice like ministers requesting a few minutes after a Cabinet meeting. Singh usually does not refuse and minutes can stretch on a bit longer. He works right through weekends, unfazed by political storms raging around him. A few months ago, on a Saturday when Delhi's rumour mills were busy speculating about his political future, an unperturbed PM calmly oversaw a meeting on green energy options.

While his ability to scan files and minutiae is legendary, aides insist he doesn't get bogged down in micro-management. He does not breathe down a ministry's neck, expecting ministers to get on with their day to day jobs, something that came across in his suggestion at his meeting with editors on Wednesday that he could not be a class monitor when it came to working with allies. His focus is on goals and hurdles in the way. As on Friday, when he will take an overview of infrastructure sectors, the PM looks at major roadblocks and calls for solutions to break logjams. Despite seeming a bureaucratic exercise, these sessions keep officialdom on its toes as ministers and bureaucrats are aware that they face an accounting exercise with someone who is not intimidated by details and statistics.

Singh's schedule requires him to regularly address academic, industry, government and constitutional bodies. He delivers a couple of speeches a week on an average. Government and party work at the Planning Commission, Congress core group meetings, official functions at Vigyan Bhawan, Cabinet meetings and other business like a meeting to commemorate his mentor P V Narasimha Rao this week are all part of work.
The afternoons often see meetings with chief ministers and senior officials and are 15-20 minute affairs and then there is file work to attend to. Singh often pens a "please examine" on representations that keeps officials busy. Despite the volume of work that awaits him every day, officials say he is a gracious boss ever ready to hand out a generous recommendation to those who have served him. He respects diligent officers and is faintly deprecating about pushy ones.

The PM's evenings stretch on longer than was the case in his first term, partly because of more frequent and prolonged crisis ranging from the Telangana protests to dealing with civil society agitators but also because he is keenly conscious of the need to keep the wheels of policy turning. A family man, Singh does not step out much for social dos nor does he entertain. He does watch television – some party colleagues feel he can reduce the attention he pays to news channels – and wife Gursharan is not far from his side. Even when he travels long distances within India, his staff try to get him back to Delhi for the night.

Despite the cares of office with UPA's second term honeymoon ending abruptly due to corruption scandals, Singh is not going to give his rivals a walkover. Those who know the PM say he is not a quitter. His critics who forget this are fated to be reminded of their folly as aides point out that Singh can weather storms without losing his cool. There is a flinty toughness in the way he turned tables on Opposition BJP in Parliament during the debate on a joint parliamentary committee on the 2G scam. The same grittiness is likely to be on display again next month when government tees off with a resurgent Opposition in Parliament.