In a 1996 interview, Singh had been asked point-blank about his aspirations for the top job, and his response was uncharacteristically blunt: “Who doesn’t want to be prime minister?”
In fact, Singh was secretly approached two years later, in 1998, with a proposition to put him forward as a prime ministerial candidate. The Congress was fractured at that point in time, and the era of unstable coalitions had begun. A senior Congress leader who had joined Mamata Banerjee’s breakaway Trinamool Congress told me that he and Banerjee had hatched a plan early in 1998 to approach Singh—who was then unhappy in the Congress—and offer him a safe seat in North West Calcutta. They were confident that the upcoming snap elections would deliver a repeat of 1996, with no party as a decisive winner, and believed they could cobble together a coalition with Manmohan Singh as the prime minister.
“I went to his Safdarjung Road residence and put this proposition to him, to join the Trinamool Congress,” the senior leader told me. “I said, I’m authorised by Mamata Banerjee to offer you a ticket from North West Calcutta, the constituency of the aristocratic Bengalis—the Bhadralok. There is no way anyone could beat you there, and after the elections the prime ministership will be offered to you on a platter.”
“Do you know what Manmohan Singh said?” the leader continued. “He said, ‘This country will not accept a Sikh as the Prime Minister.’”