Manmohan Singh at 80

Manmohan Singh Manmohan Singh is one of the architects of India's economic reforms

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India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 80. Writer and historian Ramachandra Guha assesses his performance in office.

In April 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru went for a holiday in the hills to sort out his future.

After 10 bruising years as India's prime minister, he wanted a spell as a private citizen.

He thought he should give up his job, catch up with old friends and with his reading, and go on a "slow pilgrimage" to different parts of the country. In the end, Mr Nehru was persuaded to reconsider his decision, and stay on in office.

Had Mr Nehru retired in 1958 he would be remembered as not just India's best prime minister, but as one of the great statesmen of the modern world.

Start Quote

This is the same man who did more than anyone to earn his country a worldwide reputation as the world's next big economic success story - Manmohan Singh deserves better”

End Quote Shashi Tharoor Congress party MP

He had helped nurture a plural, multi-party democracy against massive opposition and in the face of widespread scepticism. He had forged innovative and independent-minded economic and foreign policies. He had made sure that India would not be a Hindu Pakistan.

After 1958, however, Mr Nehru's problems began.

Bruised reputation

The first major corruption scandal (the Mundhra affair) took place under his watch; then he acquiesced in the shocking dismissal of an elected Communist state government in Kerala.

A spate of border conflicts erupted, culminating in the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese Army in 1962. When Mr Nehru died in May 1964, his reputation lay in tatters.

Manmohan Singh is no Mr Nehru; but his term in office bears some curious resonances with that of his illustrious predecessor. His well-wishers had hoped he would retire in 2009, and perhaps the thought crossed his mind itself.

Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi on 17th August 1947, just days after Indian Independence. Mr Nehru's problems began after 1958

After the Gujarat riots and the vulgar 'India Shining' campaign, his compatriots needed a safe, steady, understated hand; this Manmohan Singh and his government had provided.

Religious tempers had been calmed, government functioning made more transparent (through the right to information law), and a series of welfare measures for the rural poor (pre-eminently, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme) initiated. He had done his job; it was time now to make way for a younger man (or woman).

Had Manmohan Singh retired in 2009, history would have remembered him as one of the two main architects (PV Narasimha Rao being the other) of economic liberalisation in India; and as a moderately successful prime minister.

But, unable to resist the lure of office, he stayed on.

In his second term, he has presided over what is arguably the most corrupt government in Indian history.

The series of scandals - Commonwealth Games, telecoms spectrum, 'Coalgate' - that he has failed to prevent, detect or take prompt action over have massively damaged his party and his government and irretrievably dented his own reputation.

In the 1990s, in the first flush of the liberalisation he helped initiate, those entrepreneurs with the most creative ideas tended to do best; now, with him as prime minister, it is the cronies with the best contacts who flourish.

The corruption apart, the second term of the Congress-led government has also been marked by apathy and incompetence.

There have been no imaginative measures of the right to information law or the jobs for work scheme. In 2004, when Manmohan Singh, himself a trained economist, became prime minister, there were great hopes that he would modernise administration, bring well-qualified professionals into public service, and insulate civil servants and police officers from political interference.

He has done nothing of the kind; rather, he has been unwilling to disturb in any way the networks of patronage that have so grievously damaged the ability of the Indian state to provide decent education, health care and public safety to its citizens.

Political authority

Slow, timid, status quoist, and, above all, corrupt; these are the terms in which Manmohan Singh and his second government will be remembered.

It need not have turned out that way.

But then the Indian case is illustrative of a much wider phenomenon; of once competent, once admired politicians who stay on too long in office and see their reputation diminish as a result.

This may be why the United States introduced a two-term limit for their presidents.

Across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, seen as modernising go-getters in their early years in office, had eventually to be defenestrated by their own colleagues to save their party's reputation.

In August 2011, in an article for the Hindustan Times, I urged the prime minister to resign.

A supporter of Communist Party of India (Marxist) holds a placard in a protest in New Delhi, India,Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Mr Singh's government has been under pressure for most of its second term

His apathy, age and lack of independent political authority were increasingly evident.

"It is time," I wrote, that Manmohan Singh "made way for a younger man or woman, for someone who has greater political courage, and who is a member of the Lok Sabha [lower house] rather than the Rajya Sabha [upper house]. As things stand, with every passing day in office his reputation declines further. So, more worryingly, does the credibility of constitutional democracy itself."

When I wrote this I knew that India was not the United Kingdom.

Unlike in the case of Mrs Thatcher or Mr Blair, the Congress party, itself timid and status quoist, was not likely to ask Manmohan Singh to leave office.

My appeal, rather, was to his own reason and background; surely, as a well read and historically minded intellectual himself, he knew it was now time to retire from politics?

The great Indian cricketer Vijay Merchant, when asked why he had retired from the game after scoring a century in his last Test innings, answered: "I wanted to go when people asked 'Why' rather than 'Why Not'?"

This is a lesson few cricketers have heeded, and even fewer politicians. In staying on so long in office - despite the cost to his party, his government, his country and himself - Manmohan Singh is in the rather elevated company of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ramachandra Guha's books include India after Gandhi and Makers of Modern India. He lives in Bangalore. The views expressed in this article are his own.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Manmohan cannot be compared to Nehru in anyway! Manmohan's earlier achievements as FM were because of Narasimha Rao(who is never given the due credit he deserves, because he is not of the dynasty), who picked Manmohan out of political obscurity and gave him the required political cover to do the necessity!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Still put my 2 penny bit on this government because of the educated individuals, and their professional background. Sickens me when I watch news from India, and the kind of people who dominate Indian politics. Amazed that Indian citizens are ready to put their their trust in them.
    I suppose it is the social system which is broken, and that's for the people to correct!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Mr. Manmohan Singh will be remembered as the most honest Prim-minster to run the most dishonest Government .!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What has and will become of India? Corruption is out of control as is the poverty. I wonder how we would have turned out if the British had stayed on. We are far behind in so many things, it's a sad state of affairs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    India needs intelligent and educated leaders like Mr. Manmohan Singh, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, Mr. Chidambaram. Most Indians suffer from 'star sickness' and elect people like Tendulkar, Bollywood stars and uneducated people like Laloo Prasad and the likes. While Tendulkar is good at cricket and Bollywood stars are good at entertainment, they lack the knowledge and wisdom to run a country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    India, India, India, where to begin, maybe turn the clock back 60 years and start again. Very sorry and sad state of affairs for the sub-continent, the government have let their people down immensely. I just hope they find a way to come back out of it, starting off by putting its people first and not GOD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Manmohan and Tendulkar : Two great Indian icons that have failed to understand when their time to go was. Two whom Guha has expertise on.

    To be fair, they both think that they can contribute. And they are not entirely wrong.

    To be right, India has to find the replacements. And Manmohan is probably - tactically - less replaceable than Tendulkar.

    He should go and let the Congress fend for itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Its quite absurd to think there is no alternative to Manmohan if he steps down.Definitely law of nature will provide one, either good or bad. These people are doing only window-dressing and not doing essentials viz. accountability vis a vis punishment and redressal.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am no great fan of either Dr Singh or Congress party. But can anyone suggest who they like to replace Dr Singh? Congress surely promote corruption & dynastic politics- but is that not a overwhelming trend of almost all Indian political parties, except the communists and BJP (to some extent)? We have to re-build our democratic institutions and basic education first- from almost scratch.


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