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 30.

    A person who never won an election probably do not have the moral right to head any parliamentary democracy. Neither Dr Singh nor Congress do feel ashamed or shy of dong just that- continue to do that. It's the biggest insult to Indian democracy.
    Check today's news, all political parties (except CPI), including Congress r opposing bringing it under RTI, mainly to reveal its financial sources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Socio-political system in India does NOT promote honesty & original thinking. Naturally it never groom leadership. Sycophancy is the way to climb the ladder, as successfully done by Dr Singh. The impact is vivid in almost every aspect of life there- starting from science & technology to civil governance to political chaos. Inability to oppose, raise voice against corruption is no less crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Many think that "educated" people like Dr Singh, Chidambaram type people should lead the country. They probably do not know that degrees (foreign or Indian) never make a person either honest or leader. Many politicians with highly decorated degrees are no less corrupt & probbaly more dangerous.
    Many countries, including US, had excellent leaders/presidents who did not have any college education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    A sharp, astute politician who is soft-spoken but razor-sharp. At 80 he has shown continuing good judgement and has managed to keep the Congress Party together with his sensible leadership. A shrewd economist he has taken India through the buffeting world economic crisis. This is no mean feat as the country shows exponential growth and becomes a very important highly respected economic power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Nehru - India's best Prime Minister - are you kidding me? Where do you come up with this stuff BBC? You're becoming Yahoo News!!

    An 80 yr honest PM is better than a 40yr corrupt hack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    All political careers end in failure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Dr Singh is personally honest, but does not have the guts or sense to stand up to corruption. He could have blown the whistle, named names and quit, thus giving a fatal blow to some of the corrupt people. Instead he has chosen to kowtow to them.

    Changes in the political system such as the Lokpal bill may help, but finally you need honest, capable people at the top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Perhaps Manmohan works in a wrong party which solely is power-centric. I admire Dr. Singh personally. He probably joined the PM office at very critical time. Considering Congress' dynastic mentality, it is possible that he had some limitations. Recent reforms is a welcome step, which I'm sure were in the pipeline and on his agenda since really long. He truly is an iconic figure in modern India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    The problem with India is that too many of its politicians are more interested in being percieved to be a world power and too many of its more fortunate citizens have read and believed Ayn Rand's conservative clap trap. As a result the corruption is endemic and the wastefulness heartbreaking. They have got their priorities and the country needs courage to refrom and look to its least well off.

  • Comment number 21.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Perhaps something good has come out of the present government's innumerable failings: Arvind Kejriwal's decision to form a new political party that will work towards ending corruption. Arvind and his new party deserve to be given every encouragement -particularly at the hustings. As for the Congress, it will be hopefully consigned to the sidelines for eternity! Amen to that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The major setback in the Indian democracy is the multi-party system and the coalition government. The multi party system in existence, parties are being formed on basis religion, caste and other possible divisions in society. If these parties are part of the coalition government too, then how will the government ever be able to function properly?The US system with only two parties is better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    How does one know this: "But, unable to resist the lure of office, Singh stayed on."? Assumption!
    Perhaps, he thought he could still do some good, still try, still sacrifice a huge piece of his old age. I admire this man deeply. My hope is that he will retire while Indians will ask "Why?" rather than "Why not?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Dr.Manmohan Singh is a failed Prime Minister, He has no voice in this Govt. He is blindly obeying the orders of other ministers and his Italian madam.I am sorry Mr. prime Minister, if you cannot take a decision and implement it, You should quit that post. Now You are shame for India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The biggest success of India s democratic system (mostly due to Neheru) is to get a stable (successful) nation despite its vast diversity. This is unique and only example of this world. If u r expecting more with transparent, modern, educated ....and with high rate of inclusive economic growth, I am sorry, India can't achieve that. Her very own inherent character will deny to achieve it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The plight of MMS reminds me of Heller's heroines who keep shouting " 'don't put it in' as he put it in"; sad part is the opposition parties fare no better; the ruling party charged that opposition parties were employing obstructionist tactics while allowing the opposition to obstruct; the opposition said these were diversionary measures, while allowing the tactics to divert every one's attention

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Singh has done an amazing job so far. He should carry on for at least another term.
    I see no one else in India to be eligible enough to take this post. There is no better alternative at the moment.
    BJP's main agenda is to build Hindu temples at the most controversial of places and that will not help India in any way.
    Singh has done a great job, but people of India need some entertainment.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Manmohan Singh is a traitor to his own peoples despite pretending to be the PM of So called World's largest democracy he could not give justice to the innocents who were massacred in 1984 he is a puppet and can not do anything without Sonia Gandhi's approval so the Sikhs have been diapointed again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Every Indian has a great respect towards Manmohan Singh. He is a great statesman and an economist who changed the Indian economy in 90's. It's a time for him to call it a day and make way for the young brains. Happy Birthday!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    When Manmohan took over, India Shining campaign was on - whether it was vulgar or not, there was a lot of optimism around about the future of India. Now, there is hardly any around and is replaced with dispair. They have literally taken the shine out of India!!! No wonder, Manmohan will go down as the worst prime minister of India.


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