Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Manmohan Singh: A legacy of records

Manmohan Singh was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam for the fifth consecutive time on Thursday, after a minor initial scare created by some dissidents within the Congress party.

The re-election, coming a few days after the ninth anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) run in power, avoids any embarrassment to Singh as he begins his 10th year as Prime Minister—a feat achieved only twice before, first by Jawaharlal Nehru and later by Indira Gandhi.

Then, Singh has always been an achiever.

No prime minister of India has so far had—and it is unlikely any in the future will—the credentials of Singh, who has been leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, finance minister, chairman of the University Grants Commission, adviser to the prime minister, Reserve Bank of India governor, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and chief economic adviser.

Given this exemplary resume, it is only obvious to expect, especially in a country desperately seeking heroes, that Singh would excel in his current role. Unfortunately for India and Indians, Singh’s performance—and never mind what the spin doctors say—has belied expectations.

Singh’s story is a compelling one replete with milestones. From its onset in Gah, Pakistan, on 26 September 1932, it has been a story of upward mobility. Singh, now 81, completed a DPhil in economics from Oxford, did a stint teaching at the hallowed Delhi School of Economics, was secretary general of the South Commission, and proceeded to work in various arms of the bureaucracy. Along the way, he filled up his personal resume when he married Gursharan Kaur; the couple have three daughters.

In a way, his transition into political life as the country’s finance minister, in hindsight, seemed only logical. The long stint in various assignments made him the perfect choice to press the right levers in government to execute a radical change of existing policy. Ironically, he wasn’t the first choice.

Then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who already had a blueprint for reforms (inherited from the outgoing regime led by Chandra Shekhar), first turned to I.G. Patel, who declined the job on account of failing health. Patel recommended Singh. The rest is history. The dramatic turnaround of the economy, together with Singh’s understated demeanour, made him the darling of the middle class and the Congress party.

So, when the Congress wanted a credible face in the Rajya Sabha during its years of wilderness in the opposition, it turned to Singh.

Meanwhile, the man himself was gradually redefining his political persona. His resume, put up on the website of the Upper House, describes his profession as “civil service, economist, political and social worker, teacher and educationist". Those who unfairly cast him as not being a politician should think again: Singh himself clearly believes otherwise.

And when the Congress emerged as the accidental winner in the 2004 election, besting the odds and the self-belief of the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and when the first family of the party decided to pass on the top job, Singh emerged the natural choice as the country’s 14th prime minister. He was a surprise choice, but a popular one, at least with the middle class. And why not? He had the reputation of being a honest man and his heart was in the right place as far as economic reforms were concerned.

The only glitch was that the Congress was elected on the mandate of inclusion, and the party’s limited understanding of inclusion was restricted to payouts in the form of subsidies—populist in nature, but a strain on government finances. Singh was a reluctant believer, but kept his dissent to himself, as the government rolled out its marquee rural employment guarantee scheme. Nor did he hesitate to announce, in the run-up to the 2009 general election, a waiver of around 60,000 crore of farm loans.

But since then, the government has been plagued by corruption scandals, mismanagement of the economy, and “policy paralysis". Slowly but steadily, the Singh sheen has gradually began to wear thin.

Meanwhile, self-appointed cheerleaders of Singh clutched at straws and blamed it all on a power-sharing arrangement under which Singh had administrative power, with the real political power being vested in Congress president Sonia Gandhi. This runs counter to facts that show that whenever Singh has put his foot down, whether it be on signing the controversial nuclear pact with the US or allowing foreign investment in multi-brand retail, he has had his way. And on every such occasion, Gandhi has lined up the party behind Singh.

As Singh enters the final year of his second term—there have been reports that he is open to a third one—and as at least some of his erstwhile cheerleaders begin to target him, it is interesting to look at his legacy.

The bad seems to outweigh the good. In his first term, Singh oversaw an average economic growth of 9%, but this created merely a million jobs. In his second, the government lurched from one crisis to another and high inflation took a toll on the consumption strand of the popular India story. And Singh’s genteel demeanour and confrontation-averse style was out of place at a time when India needed a leader who wasn’t just in charge, but also conveyed the impression that he was.

It will be a pity if history remembers Singh more fondly for all he did before he ascended to the top post in the land.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at

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