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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Former PM Manmohan Singh at 91: An inspiring life
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Former PM Manmohan Singh at 91: An inspiring life

Singh has been inspirational in various roles as an economist, teacher and bureaucrat, though history will likely focus on India’s 1991 reforms as much as his shift in approach as prime minister.

Manmohan Singh was asked, not once but twice, by Julius Nyerere to head the South Commission as Secretary General, a post he held for three years from 1987. Premium
Manmohan Singh was asked, not once but twice, by Julius Nyerere to head the South Commission as Secretary General, a post he held for three years from 1987.

An unforgettable image from the last session held in the old Parliament building is that of an elderly Sikh gentleman in a wheelchair at the very back of an aisle, intently following proceedings. Manmohan Singh turned 91 this week, and even in relatively frail health did not miss this historic session as one of the oldest members of the Rajya Sabha. His seven decades in public life, culminating in his decade-long service at the very top of India’s democracy, is nothing short of inspirational. Humble beginning may be a cliché, but apt to describe his journey.

Born in a small village called Gah, raised by grandparents with frugal means, schooled in Peshawar, displaced by Partition in 1947, he went on to secure an Economics Tripos from Oxford and a doctorate from Cambridge. He studied under stalwarts like Joan Robinson, Nicholas Kaldor and I. M. D. Little, all of whom held this scholarly student in high esteem. In the 1970s, he was a professor at the Delhi School of Economics and also Chief Economic Advisor. In the 1980s, he was Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission. In the 1990s, he served as the Finance Minister of India, ushering in landmark economic reforms. In the 2000s, he was India’s Prime Minister for a decade. No economist comes even close to these spectacular achievements. It wasn’t only about occupying high office, but also delivering and being accountable. There can be a debate over the effectiveness of his leadership, or the role of luck, or over who else should get credit for success and the blame for failures. But even his severest critics will not deny his dedication, sincerity, hard work, scholarship, decency and incorruptibility.

That he has strident critics is the genius of India’s democracy. And Singh would be the first to pay heed to criticism. For instance, after the reforms of 1991, many of his friends with socialist leanings felt betrayed. But he continued to seek their counsel and gave them positions of prominence on advisory panels. Singh’s own views evolved over time. His earliest essays advocated lower tariffs and free trade-led development. He provided intellectual heft to the market-oriented reforms of 1991. But, as Prime Minister, his government tilted visibly towards welfarism and a rights-based approach. This subtle shift is the hallmark of someone who is open-minded, and neither enamoured by something simply because it is old, nor swept by what is current and fashionable. Such a truth seeker displays a readiness to reconsider. Worsening income inequality around the world has led to free-market principles being questioned and pointed to the need for higher welfare spending. Singh’s evolution is in line with a view that John Maynard Keynes expressed thus: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Manmohan Singh was asked, not once but twice, by Julius Nyerere to head the South Commission as Secretary General, a post he held for three years from 1987. Here, he had the opportunity to push for South-South cooperation and manage a coalition of 26 member commissioners with sharply differing views. Perhaps this was the training that helped Singh lead coalition governments later. During the G20, India has again become a champion of the Global South. Upon his return from the South Commission, Singh wrote in March 1991 that despite India’s highest industrial decadal growth of 8.6%, the dominant mood in the country was not of confidence but of despondency. This was because of social and political developments of the time. He made a pitch for new economic policies, which were unveiled thereafter.

As the Finance Minister who oversaw the unleashing of economic reforms in 1991 and the dismantling of India’s Licence Raj, one aspect deserves special mention. This was the fortification of reform policies by expert committees. These would have members from multiple disciplines. There was the Raja Chelliah committee for tax reforms, which led to the implementation of the goods and services tax. There was the Narasimham committee that led the way for finance and banking reforms. The Malhotra committee set up in December 1993 led the way for the private-sector entry and growth of insurers. The regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India was set up in 1994. It has overseen and been partly responsible for the spectacular rise of our capital markets.

As Prime Minister, Singh was first among equals in the Cabinet. Consensus was sought despite strong differences among members, both from his party and coalition partners. Yet, much was achieved by way of landmark legislation on the right to information, food and employment, and the rollout of the Aadhaar identity system. It is ironic that even in South Delhi, he could not win a Lok Sabha seat (reminiscent of B.R. Ambedkar losing elections twice during the 1950s in Mumbai). But his work and life-long service speak much louder than his soft-spoken demeanour. Better than thousands of accusatory questions, he once said, was his silence, for he had maintained the dignity of his detractors!

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Published: 28 Sep 2023, 09:06 PM IST
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