After a quiet start, Singh shows he has a compassionate side For several weeks after assuming office in May, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did a virtual vanishing act: hardly any public appearances, speeches or television sound bites. Indians wondered whether Singh's famously self-effacing personality could mean being led by an invisible prime minister. After all, here was a man who favoured a rickety Ambassador car over a sleek BMW as his official transport and whose down-to-earth wife knows the price of vegetables. Mr Singh had always shunned the bright lights. But would this diffident persona cut the mustard as prime minister? True, Mr Singh was an academic and economist, not a politician, who become leader only because the head of his party, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, renounced the job. But still, it would hardly do for him to tuck himself away like a back-room elf. Before these anxieties could be articulated, Mr Singh suddenly surged into view. He delivered a thoughtful address to the nation, slapped state leaders on the wrists for not spending money on rural development, and went south to hug the widows of farmers who had committed suicide in despair over their debts. The gesture of comfort was transparently genuine. It was also appreciated by the widows. After all, no other prime minister in recent years has been seen hugging or embracing the victims of terrorist acts or natural disasters. Mr Singh came across as concerned, compassionate and determined to do something. Not only did he promise the widows jobs, he told them his office would follow it up. Commentators noted that Mr Singh was proving surprisingly effective in striking just the right note in public and projecting a concern for the poor that had been so lacking in the previous government. He once remarked, after taking office, that he was surprised at how large a part of the prime minister's responsibilities were ceremonial. 'I think he's begun to realise that the ceremonial is as important as clearing files. The ceremonial stuff allows a prime minister to project himself and his priorities. It's important because it shapes public perceptions,' said analyst Inder Malhotra. Another event also displayed Mr Singh's determination to cut through the corruption that bedevils rural development. Every year, New Delhi gives mountains of cash to the states to spend on drinking water, roads, schools and health clinics. Every year, only a tiny percentage actually trickles down to the rural poor. Some 170 billion rupees (HK$29 billion) a year fails to reach the people it is intended for. So at a meeting of chief ministers last week, he gave them a warning: start spending this money properly or I will bypass you and hand it over directly to the panchayats (village councils) so they can finance development projects. The idea was purely his own, indicating that he has strong opinions on what he wants to achieve and is not going to be restricted by the Congress party's line on issues. Going even further, he suggested India should adopt the Chinese model of rural development. The prime minister is never going to be a great communicator. He is too reserved for that. But he has shown that he knows his own mind and is in a hurry to bring change.