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 50.

    @ Ram 49. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Dr Singh is an exception. External pressure & Congress's political calculations r behind the latest initiative to open retail FDI (& related issues), just as Narashimha Rao in 1991. It's hard to believe that Dr Singh can take any strong decision on his own, w/o any political base or persuasion ability, even for its own allay- in 1991 & 2012.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    @Jay 44 you say "CEOs generally do not make good leaders or policy makers" - There are exceptions to the rule and Singh is one. His authority came from hierarchy Rao, Sonia; but he has done well and could have done better. His latest steps at @80 generate hope. Hope he stays the course. I wish him courage; he has nothing to lose, he is in history books already. Hope he stays the course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Even though I admire Gandhiji, there are many historians who believe that India became free in 1947 mainly for World War II, not due to Gandhiji's movement. Post WWII, British empire got down to its knees by losing both its economic & militarily muscle to have distant colonies. Many, if not majority, of British colonies who did not have Gandhiji, got freedom within a decade after WWII.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @ Ram 45. Check it- "It's really surprising that if everyone is so against corruption, why we have such an extensive and intense corruption in almost every field of life there (India)!... And then, "Success" in India depends more on one's ability to use the existing corrupt practices and loopholes than on...." -

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @Tkbhat. Yes, Congress party never tolerated any opposition view that disagree with power lobby within the party. That's how the party evolved- start of sycophancy culture. Nobody (even leaders like Subhas Bose, Ambedkar etc) could survive, whatever great logic they might have to achieve the publicly stated party/national agenda, by opposing MK Gandhi or his loyal followers (JN included).

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @Jay 38- "India not ready for anti-corruption mass movement" - No Jay Indians are fed up with obstacles in their daily life - not getting their birth certificates,their homes registered or getting their driving licenses, encounters with bureaucrats at the entry level are annoying and painful,generate run around in circles. Tackle corruption where you see it,stop wasting time on here say!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @ Ram. Successful bureaucrats, corporate CEOs generally do not make good (national) leaders or public policy makers. Their authority comes frm hierarchy, NOT frm leadership quality or ability to convince opposition views.
    Dr Singh is a "good" & obedient bureaucrat, who knows how to please the boss & not to get into conflict. A leader can never perform without a mass base & Dr Singh never has one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Nehru often said he wanted to industrialise India but all this were already in paper made when Subhas Bose was elected Congress President and this was only followed. Bose though elected and wanted independence but M.K.G. And J.N. opposed they wanted low grade agitation and threw this man out of congress. British were afraid of strong Hindu nationalist and both Patel and Mukherjee but not J.N.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    @ Ram 39. Constitution is a book written by few people. Something is there in constitution don't necessarily make it right.That's why there are process to amend constitution.
    >50% of Indian laws are outdated, continuation of colonial Brit laws. A decent leader not only adhere to law but also to ethics & values while a great leader fight against unjust laws & uphold values, both political & social.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    The trend became clear immediately after independence, when Gandhiji (MK) refused to lead free India & imposed power-hungry Jawaharlal. There were many excellent (true) leaders from both ruling & opposition parties like Sardar Patel, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee etc, but all were shrewdly marginalized to pave way for Indira who started criminalizing politics & destruction of democratic institutions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Nehru best prime minister! He failed when he wanted to befriend revolution hard Chinese leaders, his struggle for freedom was joke independence was given not won. He lived a comfortable life in a palace had many affairs and ate like a king when the whole country was starving. He wept when heard a song of freedom fighters but he did nothing to save actual freedom fighters dying of hunger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I disagree with Jay 30 - "A person who never won an election has no moral right to head any parliamentary democracy -- Dr Singh nor Congress feel ashamed of doing just that" - No not so fast Jay. Singh is PM in accordance with the Indian constitution the bed rock of Indian democracy. There must have been many solid reasons for this provisions in the constitution; even though I do not like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    @ Ram. Check this analysis- "Our legacy, our liability, our future"- India will not be ready, at least in near future, to have any anti-corruption mass movement led by ANY political party, including that by Arvind Kejriwal (even though I support his effort). The reasons are very clear, to me at least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    @ Ram. I am not sure if you know India at all. Indira Gandhi was the worst PM a country can have. Manmohan did NOT achieve PM position by his leadership quality or any ability, either as an economist or politician. His rise to power became possible because of his timid & crony nature.
    Not a single policy decision, including 1919 liberalization, India took so far is a well planned policy shift.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I ask Rajiv 29 - You say Dr Singh is personally honest, but does not have the guts or sense to stand up to corruption. How do you know all that? What makes you say he is honest? Is he in charge of developing policies to run his nation thru the perils of recession or is he is the all mighty Lokpal who is presumed to solve all of our imagined, suspected and true corruption?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I totally disagree with Jay 29 - India does groom leadership - Nehru groomed Indira, she groomed Rajiv, Vajpayee groomed Advani, Mayawati was groomed by Kanshi Ram, Akhilesh Yadav is being groomed by Mulayam Singh, Badal is grooming his son, Pawar is grooming his daughter, and so many more. And yes you can see we have a dynastic problem. And yes there is a huge need to improve in this area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Man Mohan Singh is too old at age 80 years to rule India. He is the oldest leader among all the important countries in the world. Added like many elderly he has multiple physical problems. India needs some one well read, well travelled and young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I totally disagree with Jay 29 - India does promote honesty & original thinking, that is why Singh got where he is in spite of his failure in the elective process. Lal Bhadur Shastri is another example and there are many many more lets try to look around and be honest in our judgements and not be Bhed Chal!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Recent reforms is a welcome step, which were on his agenda for long. With his back to wall Singh has pushed to move Pranab (his rival) out of the way, and move ahead with his program. He does not have political strength or risk taking attitude, except on rare occasions like the Nuclear agreement with US. He now has a chance to improve his record as PM.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    You say he is personally honest. Let's see the facts:
    He is not elected to Lok Sabha, equivalent of British House of Commons.
    He gets elected to Rajya Sabha (house of states) equivalent of British House of Lords.
    And that too NOT from his state Punjab, but from Assam in the east, on the false claim that he is a resident of that state.
    Not sure how days he stayed in ASSAM per year on the average !


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