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 70.

    Mr. Singh can't retire until President post is vaccant or brother and sister Gandhies can divide both PM and President posts between them, there are none else from 1,2 billion Indians to save India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Dr. Singh is a very talented man but as an economist. As Prime minister he is a failure in second term. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi either should run for Prime minister or give Rahul a chance to save congress party from losing in elections in 2014.

  • Comment number 68.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Indian politicians are like most of the Indian family business , will not leave, if eventually leave pass on to son or daughter.
    Who wants to leave a lucrative job, unless becomes President, profit first country may take care of itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    MMS though an honest person has failed as a competent prime minister of India. He is surrounded by utterly corrupt vultures that have tarnished the image of Congress and its allies. He has aged 80+ and undue stress has taken a toll on his well-being. He is no longer a go-getter and is modest as a sheep. He was the best as the FM. Even Rahul as an understudy has failed as a politician. Jai Ho!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I had hope on Rahul. But he never took lead on any issue or participated in important parliamentary debates, even appearing in any interview in any reputed media. The same is true for MMS & Sonia.
    Sonia needed a loyal person without any sign of backbone to keep the seat of PM warm, till Rahul is ready. Probably Pranab was the best candidate in Congress to become PM, but Sonia never trusted him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    @ Ram 60. I think Sonia would have retained PM position if she were an Indian & more confident abt the psyche of the country. Then she would not have come up with that "inner voice" fiasco after initially decided to become PM.
    Later she & Rahul realized that enjoying power without responsibility & accountability is THE best way to remain relevant, in power & with carefully created myth intact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Then comes massive propaganda by Congress led Indian Govt to create myth.
    Do you know Indira Gandhi was rusticated (on character ground) frm Visva Bharati (VB) University by none but RN Tagore? The actual letter written by Tagore to Nehru was publicly displayed, even a few decades ago. But no more. Check any internet forum, even books- you will never get that reason on why Indira left VB midway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    @ Ram 60. U reminded 1 of my experiences in Allahabad, the ancestral place of Gandhi dynasty. There I met many people from different strata of society- both poor illiterate & elites. All of them publicly said that they believe any member of Gandhi dynasty is like God, super-human.
    Then one old man told me in private that none dare to say their actual opinion on Gandhis due to fear & reprisal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    It was 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri was speaking to a small group of people. I happened to be one of them. He said people should not serve more than one term(5 years) in any office. If they were smart they would have accomplished whatever they had planned. And if they did not they were not competent to be given a chance for the second time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    @55 Jay- Yes Dr Singh is wise and competent and yes he does not have a political base. And yes he and India are uniquely lucky, the person with political power (Sonia/ Rahul) relinquished some political power and did not take administrative power. Thus Singh can develop policies,implement some policies and manage the administration . I am thankful that he is doing that.I wish he was doing more!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    @ Ram. India is in its current pathetic situation for people like you who believe just anything without any logic & merit, that they can admit in public.
    1st stage to solve any problem is to admit it, then comes analysis & strategy. People like u r stuck even before the 1st phase. I know many people who are befitted frm the current situation, like to maintain status quo. I hope U r not 1 of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    To be a successful politician in India be either an cricketer even you blamed for match fixing or trash Bombay movie star. India poorest in the table just above Tajikistan democratic elections are run by contractor to deliver vote. People in rags worships JN and descends as descendents from God. Cast religion backward nation corruption of billions justice system untrustworthy . MKG's India!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @ Ram 56. If you or anyone really believes that "Dr Singh is not aware of any scams under his leadership"- that also proves him to be a pathetic leader who does not even know what is going on!
    "he is spending energy developing good policies"! Policies he can not discuss with his own allies, never implement without being pushed to the wall? Is that a sign of any leader, leave alone great one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    @54 Jay. Lets stop believing in here say,use logic and analyze the news/information and look with a grain of salt whatever is said or trumpeted by opposition parties. And yes I do believe Dr Singh is not aware of any scams under his leadership. I hope he is spending his energy developing good policies with colleagues in his government to steer his nation and world thru this terrible recession.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Whether it's Babri or Godhra many Hindus aggressively stood up against the criminals (calming to be Hindu). For detail- just listen Obama's UN speech yesterday.
    Will U call any person wise or competent when he does not even follow the basics of that profession? PM is both political & administrative post. If U do not have a political base & cannot make/implement a policy- then why r u there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    @ Ram 51. None of the neighbors, u r referring, had a Hindu majority population with deep secular value.Existence of those neighbors still depend more on religious fundamentalism & India bashing than anything else.Just extend ur view little further & U may understand how India became so corrupt & declining.
    India's 1991 liberalization created more income & social inequality than ever- UN report.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    @50 Jay. Dr Singh must be an exception or exceptional to get where he is. May be luck played a part. It is very difficult to make strong decisions on his own when his position is entirely based on someone else. He must have persuasion ability, the persons with power bought his plans. I agree circumstances helped. I am glad it worked out thanks to Rao and Sonia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @Ram, check this news- "UPA govt using money, muscle, mafia to cling to power: Mamata Banerjee"- It'snot by any opposition party or Pakistan by by Congress's own allay! Do U believe that Dr Singh is not aware of it or so many scams going on under his stewardship?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    @48 Jay. I totally admire Gandhiji and I agree with historians who believe that India became free in 1947 mainly for World War II; however due to Gandhiji's movement India developed many leaders who were trained in democratic ways and its value and thus India has stayed democratic and developed inclusive progress. Look around the neighborhood its not the case.


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