Tuesday, June 28th, 2022 01:58:04

The Rise And Fall Of Manmohan Singh

Updated: May 3, 2015 12:01 pm

Manmohan is not only an accidental prime minister as he has described himself but also an accidental finance minister. Destiny smiled at the soft- spoken Singh in 1991, when after the Congress party coming to power Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao was looking for a credible face as his finance minister

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave his government six out of ten marks at the end of his first year in office in 2005. How many marks will he expect now? Going by the public mood and with the sagging image of his government it should be less than four marks. No doubt he has created a record by being the longest prime minister after Nehru and Indira Gandhi outside the Gandhi family. He gets bouquets and brickbats for his achievements and failures. One of the achievements is stability and continuity and the second is that despite provocations like the Mumbai blasts of 2008, there were no war clouds. Singh believes that he should get kudos for the overall high growth during his two terms. Undaunted by the bad publicity, he stated in a press conference in January: “I honestly believe that history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media, or for that matter, the opposition parties in Parliament.”

Manmohan is not only an accidental prime minister as he has described himself but also an accidental finance minister. Destiny smiled at the soft- spoken Singh in 1991. After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party coming to power Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was looking for a credible face as his finance minister. Interestingly his first choice was not Manmohan Singh but he zeroed in on the then Director of the London School of Economics and noted economist I. G. Patel but the latter politely declined the offer. Next in the list was Singh. There were two reasons why Rao chose Manmohan Singh. He was not only willing to experiment with a technocrat but also find a credible international face to bail out India from the financial mess inherited from his predecessor, Chandra Shekhar. Foreign exchange reserves were at an all-time low, barely enough to last a few weeks. He could not expect public support for austerity measures. The IMF and the World Bank had already provided the framework for liberalization and Singh had not only the full backing of Rao but also the sheer necessity for the country to accept economic reforms. Secondly, Manmohan did not pose a threat to Rao’s leadership. This was one of the reasons why Sonia Gandhi also chose Singh as the Prime Minister.

It took two years to come out of the macro-economic crisis. The next three years—1993 to 1996—saw the highest growth rate in Indian industry but economic reforms lost steam after the initial impetus. The successive losses in assembly elections—including in Rao’s home state of Andhra Pradesh—slowed the pace of reforms. Rao’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1993 clearly indicated a “middle path”.

The Congress lost the 1996 elections amidst rumors that economic reforms was one of the reasons and Rao got embroiled in court cases but Singh continued to be the blue-eyed boy of the successive party presidents—Sitaram Kesri and then Sonia Gandhi. He became the Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha. He continued to enjoy the confidence of Sonia Gandhi with the result when the time came when she was looking for someone with an impeccable image, Singh was right there in 2004. It was expected that Sonia Gandhi would become the Prime Minister but she declined at the last minute and Singh became the king. Many were uneasy with the implied dual power-sharing arrangement and speculated that it wasn’t a politically feasible arrangement. Some thought that Singh would not complete his term and might leave in a huff but he stuck to it for the past ten years proving them incorrect. As the Congressmen point out he proved to be an underrated politician and over rated economist.

Singh’s impeccable credentials as an economist, his Oxford—Cambridge education, and his track record as Finance Minister seemed to make him a great choice to lead the UPA coalition. In him Sonia not only saw the perfect figurehead for the government but also a man of loyalty. He was a former bureaucrat who knew the ins and outs of the administration. Sonia also knew that Singh was completely dependent on the Gandhis and it was easy to keep him under check. All she had to do was to send a signal to the party if she was dissatisfied with any of his actions and her sycophants would do the rest.

03-05-2014Right from the beginning Singh knew he was only the CEO and he had to implement what Sonia Gandhi wanted. The division of labor was clear—he would look after the administration and she would take care of the coalition and the party. When the left parties wanted to part company on the nuclear deal, it was Sonia Gandhi, who took the risk and made sure the government survived. Neither Singh had crossed this Lakshman Rekha nor was he allowed to. All appointments of governors, important posts in the government and Ambassadors were made with the concurrence of 10 Janpath. Sonia told a TV channel “ Ours is a relationship of mutual trust… We are not competitors. We work together.”

03-05-2014However, Singh soon realized that he was unable to exercise his authority even over his cabinet ministers. In UPA 1, senior ministers like Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherji, Natwar Singh and Jairam Ramesh made it clear that they owed their position to Sonia Gandhi and not the Prime Minister. This was because the cabinet list and the portfolio allocations came from 10, Janpath and not from 7, Race Course Road. Before the swearing in ceremony, it was Sonia Gandhi who called them and informed the ministers to be. The only person who Manmohan Singh got a berth was the Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. The decision to sack ministers involved in controversies like Natwar Singh, Shahsi Tharoor, Aswinin Kumar and Bansal also came from the party supremo. The allies too were dealing directly with Sonia Gandhi. His authority over the ministers representing the allies like Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad or the DMK ministers was also minimal. In UPA 2, the TMC embarrassed him even on the railway budget asking him to sack the TMC minister Dinesh Trivedi for defying the TMC supremo Mamata Banerji. The West Bengal chief minister created a foreign policy crisis, when Singh made his first visit to Bangladesh and refused to accompany him to sign the Teesta water Treaty.

No doubt Singh began well with a lot of goodwill and full backing of the middle classes who thought of him as their representative. Right from the beginning, Singh saw that there were several issues which needed political sagacity like disinvestment of public sector undertakings, labor reforms, second generation economic reforms but it was Sonia’s job to tackle the allies and build a consensus.

Singh was initially lucky because he was able to inspire the confidence of the international community and investors lined up to put money in India, which has a growing middle class and a profitable market. The growth rate also was high but the whole thing collapsed when the global economic crisis in 2008 spoiled all his dreams. Singh could no longer tout the 9 per cent GDP as his achievement. When the GDP came down to less than 5 per cent in 2014, he merely cited the global factors. Fuel prices have been rising all through UPA-1 and UPA-2, but the subsidy bill has not stopped growing. Total subsidies on oil alone were about Rs. 7,50,000 crores in the past ten years, which resulted in a total mismanagement of the oil economy. Energy prices remain largely unreformed.

Ironically, Singh who has been called the father of India’s economic reforms could not launch second-generation reforms during UPA-1 or UPA-2. Vested interests, trade unions and the Left parties combined with vote bank politics and populism were his main problems to scuttle or slow down the pace of reforms. Another important thing was that Sonia Gandhi believed in left of the centre policies while Singh was the right wing supporter. There was clash of interests. At the state level, some regional parties in power delayed reforms. When the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu, a UPA ally, opposed the disinvestment of Neyveli Lignite Corporation, Manmohan had to withdraw the proposal within hours. Mamata Banerji constantly played opposition to the Central government’s policies even as an ally. Above all, he was not able to market these reforms to the masses, as they had failed to generate employment corresponding to the high growth. The opposition parties dubbed the reforms as pro-rich and anti-poor. He had to agree to the populist programmes of Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council like the MNAREGA, Right to Information, Right to Education and Food security Bill reluctantly. The NAC functioned like a super cabinet.

Despite all these, the UPA was able to come to power in 2009 and the congress got more than 200 seats to its own surprise, with some crediting Singh for the support from the middle classes. The reason why corruption did not figure strongly in the 2009 campaign was because these scams surfaced only after the elections. Ironically, most of these scams had taken place during the UPA 1 period.

While, the general expectation was that Sonia Gandhi would anoint her son Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Minister, Sonia declared even before the 2009 elections that Singh would continue. In his second term, the government started drifting and was bogged down by series of scams tumbling out of its cupboard, especially the 2G and CWG, coalgate, Railgate and other scams. The Neera Radia tape allegations reveal the state of affairs at the time of the formation of UPA 2 cabinet. The cohesiveness was not visible in the second term, as Singh came across as a weak and helpless prime minister, who presided over a corrupt regime allowing his ministers to loot the country. Until the scams surfaced, he continued to be the favorite of the middle class. Allies like the TMC and the DMK started leaving the UPA. Things became difficult as his image took a drubbing. People felt that an honest man like Singh in whom they reposed their trust had let them down. The international press also began to indulge in bad publicity against the UPA 2 and also Singh personally. The growth story was coming to an end they predicted. The indication came from an article, in the Time magazine which ticked him off for appearing to be “unwilling to stick his neck out” on reforms, that will put the country back on the growth path.

There are various reasons for the sagging image of the UPA 2. Apart from trying to keep his “ Mr. Clean “ image, the Prime Minister did not get much support from the party either. Sonia Gandhi distanced herself and the Congress party from any unpopular decision, which got a flack from the public. The party left it to the government to defend the price rise, inflation and other issues, which has earned the public wrath. Gandhi wrote letters to the Prime Minister on various issues differing from the government. On price rise and inflation and downslide in the growth, Singh could do little but to point to ‘global factors.’ His second term witnessed stormy protests from the public on the Delhi gang rape and corruption.


Secondly, the arrival of social activists like Anna Hazare, raising the corruption issue also had created a problem for the Congress. The government’s failure to handle Anna Hazare and the yoga guru Baba Ramdev agitations, boomeranged on Singh with thousands of people gathering in the Ramlila grounds in support of Anna’s India Against Corruption. He misread the situation when he sent four of his senior ministers to receive the yoga guru at the airport and the government got him arrested later. No doubt the government managed to get the Lokpal bill passed at the fag end of the 15th Lok Sabha but the credit was given to Rahul Gandhi for his anti corruption stand and not to Singh.

The fall out of the IAC was the emergence of Kerjiwal’s Aam Admi party, which has taken up cudgels against corruption. This one- issue party won whopping 28 seats within a year of its formation and won the Delhi Assembly elections. He became a short-lived chief minister and brought out corruption charges against many of Singh’s cabinet colleagues.

Above all, the nomination of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and his media and ad blitz is hitting the UPA hard. The soft target for them was the soft- spoken Prime Minister, who rarely opened his mouth. Let alone the opposition, apparently even members of his own party began to think of him as a liability. Nearer the polls, it became clear that Singh had to bow out. With the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as the party vicepresident last year and the ill health suffered by Sonia Gandhi, there came a loud chorus from the party demanding Rahul for PM.

On the foreign policy front, Prime Minister tried to create niche for himself and found friends in the western world. Soon after assuming office, Singh took a decisive step to secure deepening and broadening of the Indo- US ties. The Indo-US nuclear deal was the opening gambit of a rising India’s ambition to join the global powers. With the support of President George Bush, Singh managed to find a place at every high table and in nuclear regimes. On the neighborhood policy, peace brokered by the Singh government brought the Maoists in Nepal to the mainstream politics. He initiated the composite dialogue with Pakistan and opened a new window in Indo-Pakistan relations by talking to Pak prime minister Nawaz Sheriff in October 2013, when they met in New York.

But on Sri Lanka, there were strains in the ties because Singh decided to bow to the pressures of the UPA Tamil Nadu allies and voted against Sri Lanka twice and abstained once. He also refused to the CHOGM meeting hosted by Colombo last year. The Sri Lankan-Tamil issue has become a constant irritation between the Centre and Tamil Nadu.

03-05-2014India-China relations are more or less stagnant, having lost their upbeat note but the dialogue continued, despite their major border disputes over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. On the positive side, China and India have cooperated on a global level on issues like climate change, rather successfully. With new leadership in both countries, new avenues have to be explored when the new government takes over. India’s ‘Look East ‘policy continues even as New Delhi bumps shoulders with China in the ASEAN countries. The relationship with Russia continues to be on even keel as the Afghanistan policy.

Singh’s very personality traits, which were seen as his assets, give a definite fillip to those in opposition. The very same qualities that Singh brought to the table, which delighted the middle classes, are putting them off. The aspirational class, which is coming up in large numbers is looking for a new India with jobs and development and a younger leader with decisive qualities. It is clear now that the rise of Narendra Modi or Kejriwal shows how the public opinion can swing from one end to the other.

Singh was undoubtedly one of the most honest prime ministers. Why was Manmohan unable to deliver as the PM, while he could project the image of a ‘doer’ as the FM? The answer is simple. Things have changed, times have changed and people at the helm of affairs also have changed. He is unable to connect with the emerging young and aspirational class and the public perception. He had let down the people.

At the end of his ten years, what would be his personal scorecard? The UPA 1 was good but the UPA 2 had lost sheen and for the past two years Singh is functioning like a caretaker prime minister. All policy decisions are put on hold and people’s anger is rising to vote out the Congress government. Singh will lay down office next month with a mixed bag of reactions from the public—some cheering him and others blaming him. According to Economic Times “I have done nothing wrong, I want to go as an honorable man,” the PM is believed to have told one of his confidants at a meeting last month at which top officials were present.”

By Kalyani Shankar



With the release of the book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, the debate in Indian politics has again returned to the point when it was alleged that Manmohan Singh’s government is remote controlled by the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. This has once again weakend the position of the party and Manmohan Singh altogether. The book alleges that Manmohan Singh was not entirely in control of his cabinet or even PMO. It is also alleged in the book that significant power was wielded by the party president Sonia Gandhi, to whom Manmohan was completely ‘subservient’. The release of the book in the midst of the ongoing elections in the country is bound to have ramifications. The already battling Congress is being hounded by the Opposition on these revelations.

Manmohan Singh, who has been described as the weakest prime minister of all times, is silent on this matter. But, whatever be his image in the country, he is favourite of many world leaders. He is viewed as an economist and a statesman amongst the world leaders. “I really like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister is a wise leader.” This is what former US President George W Bush had to say in 2009, about Singh with whom he had reached a landmark civil nuclear agreement, which had led to the end of 34-year isolation of India in nuclear commerce. Bush, who showered praise on Singh while speaking at the HT Leadership Summit 2009, described the economic liberalisation process initiated by India in 1991 when Singh was the Finance Minister as one of the two important events of that year that led to transformation of Indo-US ties. His remarkable friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was highlighted when Manmohan Singh went on a two-day trip to Russia last year. Vladimir Putin personally chose three gifts for him. The three gifts that reportedly took even some Russian officials by surprise were a painting of Russian Czar Nicholas II, depicting the details of his travails to India way back in 1890-91, a map of India belonging to 16th century and a coin dating back to Mughal era. Such is the stature of Manmohan Singh among world leaders which the rarest of the rare gesture.

US President Barack Obama personally walked down to the White House portico to see off Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a meeting with him at the Oval Office last year. Officials from White House have noted that Mr Obama has great respect for the Prime Minister not only as a great leader and a statesman but also as an economist. The two leaders have enjoyed a great personal rapport. Mr Obama had hosted his presidency’s first State Dinner for Manmohan Singh in November 2009 and described India and United States as the indispensable partners of the 21st century. In his remarks, Mr Obama praised the Prime Minister. He said: “He has been a great friend and partner to the United States and to me personally during his tenure as Prime Minister of India.” Obama further added “Across the board, Prime Minister Singh has been an outstanding partner.” Obama appreciated the efforts of Manmohan Singh in bolstering the ties between the two countries, “Thank you so much for all your efforts to continue to strengthen ties between our two countries,” he told Dr Singh. In an interview to Time magazine, Obama said that he counts Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and German Chancellor Angela Merkel among leaders with whom he has forged “friendships and bonds of trust”. It must also be remembered that last year in a rare utterance, Manmohan Singh attacked his opposition and said “Whatever some members of the House may say about me as the prime minister, I command certain status, certain prestige and certain respect in the Council of the Group of 20.” US President Barack Obama had already confirmed his stature in the world, while speaking on the sidelines of G20 summit 2010, “I can tell you that here at G20, when the Prime Minister speaks, people listen.” Singh’s contention that he commands a “certain prestige and respect” among world leaders was also confirmed by an August 2010 Newsweek article that hailed the Indian prime minister as the “leader other leaders love”.

“Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a sophisticated former economist, has played a key role in the country’s emergence as one of the rising powers of the 21st century, engineering the transition from stagnant socialism to a spectacular takeoff in the global economy”, the noted. It further added that it was his unassuming personal style that “really inspires awe among his fellow global luminaries, who praise him for being modest, humble, and incorruptible”. While Manmohan Singh’s image has been tarnished in the country, at world stage he still commands some respect. His economist background has certainly helped him in garnering respect for himself among the world leaders. The recent revelation about him being a remote-controlled prime minister can have impact on the ongoing elections but will not impact his stature as a world leader.

By Nilabh Krishna

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